The North Carolina Tar Heels have been able to produce NFL Draft prospects in huge numbers in recent years. Coming off of last year, their offensive saw Jonathan Cooper go seventh overall to the Arizona Cardinals and Brennan Williams went in the third round to the Houston Texans. This year, their left tackle, James Hurst, is the next man up from that unit who will have his shot in the NFL Draft. The group was integral in opening up holes for Giovani Bernard last year and Hurst will be key to protecting Bryn Renner up right this year, so he can take the next step in leading that offense.
The schedule the Tar Heels are facing is going to put significant stress on Hurst to be a great tackle and give him a ton of opportunities to prove just how good he can be against terrific competition. Hurst is a massive looking tackle with solid fundamentals, but his overall lack of functional strength and his slow feet will hurt him in the draft process and present the biggest questions for him entering this season. Based on his junior year, Hurst looks like a day three prospect who will kick over to right tackle at the next level, but if he can improve his strength and his feet, Hurst could be a much better right tackle prospect in addition to perhaps a guard, and be near the fringes of the top 100.
Vitals & Build
Hurst is listed at 6’7” 305lbs and he looks big. He has broad shoulders and a wide base. It is unclear how strong he is but regardless of the answer, he needs to improve his functional strength on the field. Given his sheer size and frame, he does appear to have the room to continue adding strength to help him play with more power. The question is whether or not he can add strength and either improve his athleticism or at least not lose any as he simply cannot afford it.
Hurst is not overly athletic at this point and he relies on his size and ballast to take up space a little too much. He is able to get away with it in college, but it will be more problematic in the NFL when opponents are better at getting him off of his spot. If he is able to improve that for this season, it will make a big difference not only for how easily he is able to play this year but going forward into the NFL. He moves better going forward than he does laterally but neither is terribly impressive to this point. Hurst looks relatively smooth and in control for what he is able to do and is not lumbering; he is just not overly quick.
Hurst is a positional blocker who functions by getting in the way and shielding opponents out from the play. He likes to turn opponents and keep his body between the ball carrier and the defender. To this point, he does not show a ton of power and works as a human shield that can box opponents out from the play. His punch is limited and he does not generate a ton of push. Hurst will keep working his feet and stay with the play but he does not show much in terms of a killer instinct, even on smaller opponents he should be able to overwhelm.
The times Hurst shows off his power are guys who are not expecting it or are engaged with a teammate. He moves decently well going forward and when he goes to the second level, he keeps a wide base so he is not off balance but he is not particularly fast. It also helps him in terms of accuracy when it relates to hitting a moving target. He is not a guy who lunges too much in that situation and understands that if he makes contact with a defensive back or linebacker, they are going to move backward and create more of a hole for the runner.
Developing and demonstrating more power and more push as a run blocker would really help Hurst going forward. He is somewhat of a tweener if he cannot really establish an identity in that respect and that could really impact his draft status. With his height, he can get narrow and there are times when he ultimately holds up at the point of attack, but facing a bigger, stronger defender might have had vastly different results.
Hurst is a solid pass protector given the level of competition he is playing against in college. He is judicious with his feet and does not get stressed too much when it comes to guys testing him on the edge. Hurst has long arms and is able to control opponents when is able to get his hands on them, but he catches too much as a blocker. He does not show much of a punch of any kind of jolting blow as a pass blocker. For the most part, he is able to keep the opponent in front of him and while his kick slide is not great by any stretch, he does not get caught unbalanced and maintains his pad level and control. It seems like Hurst is hiding a second gear that is not going to counter great speed threats but seems to work in an effort to have the first gear lull opponents to sleep and give the impression an opening is there that is not. As a result, at times it seems like Hurst goes as fast as he needs to when it comes to getting outside, but that only goes so far and that second gear is pretty good, but not enough against terrific edge rushers.
While Hurst appears to have the matchups this year to really prove what he can do, there are concerns with his ability to protect the outside as well as dealing with players who can go from speed to power. It is not clear that he can take on an impressive bull rush without some struggles either. While he is a left tackle for North Carolina, it seems like he will have to shift over to right tackle in the NFL. He will still have some issues with speed but if he can improve his strength and base, he should at least be able to deal with power.
When it comes to playing the position the right way, Hurst seems to have the general position down and play it comfortably with a good level of fundamental play, but he could add more to his game to be more effective and employ more technique, especially with his hands. He uses his hands pretty well in the running game and while he should develop a better punch, period, Hurst controls opponents pretty well when he is engaged. He does not end up ending up off balance by virtue of what he is doing with his feet, but he could work on being able to sit down more in his stance when he is engaged. He does appear to come at opponents a little too wide with his hand use at times and risks getting nailed on holding calls as a lot of his blocks appear borderline and a quick move by a defender could get him flagged.
Hurst’s feet are average at best. He does not have quick footwork, so the steps he takes are at a premium. Hurst is smart with the steps he takes and does not get caught making too many missteps but he does have some questions when it comes to his ability to cover the outside and looks susceptible for defenders able to set him outside before slashing to the inside.
While being able to get to the second level faster would be good, the fact that Hurst keeps his feet shoulder width apart so he does not get caught off balance and can hit a moving target is helpful. This is also helpful when it comes to getting outside the times when he is asked to get out in front of a running play. If he can speed up his feet and get quicker, he will make the most of it because he has good fundamentals but overall, his feet are a major concern going forward.
Hurst’s best fit appears to be as a right tackle at the next level. His height, ballast and length make him an overwhelming presence on the line and he can overwhelm opponents and his width can help cover up some weaknesses. Gaining strength, especially functional strength in the running game is going to be important if he is going to start in the NFL but it would also possibly help get him a look at guard for a few teams as well. Left tackle at the next level just seems like an enormous stretch given what he has shown on film to this point which puts his strength in the running game at a premium.
|Thu, Aug. 29||at South Carolina|
|Sat, Sept. 7||vs. Middle Tennessee State|
|Sat, Sept. 21||at Georgia Tech|
|Sat, Sept. 28||vs. East Carolina|
|Sat, Oct. 5||at Virginia Tech|
|Thu, Oct. 17||vs. Miami|
|Sat, Oct. 26||vs. Boston College|
|Sat, Nov. 2||at N.C. State|
|Sat, Nov. 9||vs. Virginia|
|Sat, Nov. 16||at Pittsburgh|
|Sat, Nov. 23||vs. Old Dominion|
|Sat, Nov. 30||at Duke|
Hurst and the Heels go on the road week one to see Jadeveon Clowney and company. While all the focus will be about how he does against Clowney, the ultimate measuring stick for offensive tackles, Hurst might see some of Chaz Sutton as well. Sutton is not Clowney, but is pretty good in his own right. Georgia Tech on the road forces Hurst to deal with speed. Jeremiah Attaochu might be the best, pure speed rusher in the country and will really test Hurst’s ability to slide and stay balanced while protecting the edge. Still on the road, this time in Blacksburg, North Carolina faces Virginia Tech and their best pass rusher, James Gayle. It remains to be seen how much Gayle will face Hurst but if they end up going head to head. Lastly, one of the best technicians in college football along the defensive line is Aaron Donald of Pitt. The Tar Heels visit them at Heinz Field and Donald plays defensive tackle but will kick out to the edge as well.
To this point, Hurst’s game is similar to that of Breno Giacomini, the right tackle for the Seattle Seahawks. They have similar size and dimensions and some of the same qualities. Both are positional blockers that do not show overwhelming power in the running game and can have trouble dealing with speed off of the edge. They both have huge, wide bodies that can enable them to engulf opponents and simply overwhelm them, but neither one stands out as a guy who is going to be a great player at the next level.
Hurst has a lot of qualities that make him a good lineman in college football but his lack of special qualities could make it difficult for him to stay in the NFL. His best fit is at right tackle and unless he can lock down a starting job, it can be difficult to stay in the league. As a result, he projects as a day three pick based on what he has done to this point. The postseason All Star games could be huge for Hurst as he will likely get kicked over to right tackle and have an opportunity to show what he can do there as well as possibly guard. That could really help his viability for the next level and establishing himself in the NFL Draft. if he can improve his feet and show more strength in how he blocks, his technique could enable him to be successful and enable him to be more of a fringe top 100 pick with a chance to compete for a starting job.