Indiana brothers connect at UNC

Crimson Tide fans Nelson, James Hurst find a home in Chapel Hill

staff writerJune 3, 2010 

— In their stop-sign red shorts and Nikes, the Hurst brothers look out of place amidst the Tar Heel blue of UNC's Kenan Football Center.

For the record, the brothers were working out in their high school colors from Plainfield, Ind., but they've always found a way to stand out in a crowd.

Nelson, a sophomore tight end transfer from Mississippi State, and James, a freshman offensive lineman, may come from an Indianapolis suburb, but they're much more into disc golf and the TV show "Lost" than basketball or the Indianapolis 500. They never had much use for auto racing, Notre Dame football or Gene Hackman movies.

Their dad, Tim, played football for Bear Bryant at Alabama, and the boys rooted accordingly, no matter the geographical inconvenience.

Yet as summer approaches and football season lurks near, the Hursts are not in Tuscaloosa with the 2009 national champions, but in Chapel Hill. Their father made his name with the Crimson Tide in the 1970s but they chose their own path.

"We were always Alabama fans," said James Hurst, one of the top-rated recruits nationally in the freshman class. "Deep down, our dad wanted us to go there, but he ultimately wanted us to be happy."

James Hurst, who enrolled in January and enters the summer projected to start for North Carolina at left tackle, said he lacked a connection with Nick Saban, Alabama's ultra-intense coach.

"It just seemed like he didn't have much invested in his players," said Hurst, who picked UNC over Florida and Georgia. "Like the connection to his players is missing. I want to have a good relationship with my coaches."

Saban's loss was North Carolina's gain. UNC's biggest need after an 8-5 finish in 2009 is on its offensive line. A healthy lineup will certainly help - the Tar Heels started seven different line combinations in 13 games - but so will improved talent.

UNC coach Butch Davis didn't win more than nine games at Miami until the talent on the offensive line caught up to the skill positions. Davis' sixth and final Miami team, which went 11-1 in 2000, was anchored by left tackle Bryant McKinnie, a college All-American and future NFL pro bowler.

Rivals.com rates James Hurst as the 10th-best incoming college player in the country and second-best freshman tackle. Scout.com has him as the third-best tackle. At 6 feet 6 and 290 pounds, he has an uncanny agility for a big man, his high school coach said, but his best attribute may be his football IQ.

"Aside from his obvious strengths," Plainfield coach Brian Woodard said, "James is just a smart football player. It's obviously not all going to be peaches and cream for him as a freshman, but he has the intelligence to help them right away."

Nelson Hurst, who earned a scholarship after joining the UNC program in 2009 as a walk-on, said there's no doubt his brother is physically capable of playing at a high level, although he believes the main reason James can make a difference for the Tar Heels in 2010 is his ability to learn.

"He's a good listener," Nelson Hurst said. "I've been impressed with what he has been able to pick up in the offense already."

And with the loss of senior Kyle Jolly at left tackle, the Tar Heels have an opening. The younger Hurst ended spring practice as the starter but will have to compete with sophomore Carl Gaskins, who's returning from a knee injury, and fellow top-rated freshman T.J. Leifheit.

There was a baptism by fire for the younger Hurst this spring working against UNC's defensive line, specifically against end Robert Quinn, who led the team with 11 sacks last season. Hurst admitted Quinn got the best of him more often than not in practice.

"The way I look at it, those reps are going to help me down the line," Hurst said.

Nelson Hurst began his career at Mississippi State, making an Alabama connection with former Crimson Tide All-American Sylvester Croom. When Croom resigned after the 2008 season, Hurst decided to transfer, despite starting 10 games at tight end as a freshman.

Nelson is acutely aware of the perception that he's only at UNC as a part of a "package" deal to land James. Woodard, the brothers' high school coach, said it would be a mistake, however, to underestimate Nelson.

"He didn't start 10 games in the SEC because of his brother," Woodard said.

Nelson Hurst enters the summer behind Zack Pianalto and Ed Barham on the depth chart but could be used in goal-line situations due to his strong run-blocking ability. He's hoping to surprise skeptics this season with his game.

"To be absolutely honest, if it was a package deal, I still get an opportunity to make something happen on this team," Nelson Hurst said.

Chances are, UNC fans won't be able to miss the Hurst brothers once the season starts.

jp.giglio@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8938

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