Countdown to Clowney: UNC’s Hurst ready for challenge

acarter@newsobserver.comAugust 3, 2013 

— James Hurst hasn’t sought it out, but he hasn’t needed to, either. Like anyone else who closely follows college football – and others who don’t, who might just enjoy the sight of one man running over another – Hurst, the North Carolina left tackle, is familiar with the play.

By now Hurst can recite the action. He can envision Jadeveon Clowney, the South Carolina defensive end, streaking through the offensive line unblocked and exploding through Michigan running back Vincent Smith, who has become but a footnote to the most memorable play in college football last season.

The Clowney hit – describe it that way and Google does the rest – came during South Carolina’s January victory in the Outback Bowl. The highlight has more than 4 million views on YouTube, an average of about 13 per minute since it was posted Jan. 1. None of those clicks, though, has come from Hurst, who will be the first to stand in Clowney’s way this season when UNC plays at South Carolina on Aug. 29.

Nevertheless, Hurst said he has seen the clip “over and over and over again” on ESPN. Because of that, he can diagnose with ease what went right for Clowney and what went wrong for Michigan’s line.

“The right guard, from what I’ve seen, was supposed to pull to him,” Hurst said. “But he was either too slow or didn’t see him or something.”

The play has the capability to instill fear. Clowney was known long before it. But in this age of Twitter and YouTube, when a split-second highlight can last forever, that hit has become Clowney’s signature. It is what he’s remembered for, up to this point, and in some ways it represented the start of all the Heisman Trophy talk that now surrounds him.

Hurst, though, doesn’t speak in awed tones about the first – and likely best – defensive end he’ll face this season. Bring up what Clowney did against Smith, the helpless Michigan running back, and Hurst might crack a joke.

“We’re not going to put that play in,” Hurst said. “The don’t-block-Clowney play. That probably won’t be very successful for us. But yeah, he’s a playmaker, and you can’t just let one play go by thinking it’s not going to matter.”

Huge opportunity for Hurst

Portions of college football schedules often are decided years in advance. It has been understood for a while, for instance, that UNC would begin the 2013 season against the Gamecocks. And so Hurst has known, for a while, the first game of his senior season would bring the most difficult test he has ever endured.

Through no doing of his own, the Clowney hype machine has been roaring. He has been the focus of magazine covers and preseason college football shows. It seems like every starting quarterback on South Carolina’s schedule has been asked: Are you afraid to play against Jadeveon Clowney? Mark Richt, the Georgia coach, recently described Clowney as the best football player in the world. College, pro – anywhere.

What must it be like, then, to wake up every morning one day closer to playing against the one player everyone in the country can’t wait to watch? And to know that the meeting will come in front of a national audience, in ESPN’s first nationally-televised Thursday night game of the season? Only Hurst knows.

“I think James Hurst has probably heard more about Jadeveon Clowney than all of us put together,” UNC coach Larry Fedora recently said at the ACC’s annual football kickoff.

Fedora’s observation might be true. Few people who know Hurst have passed up the chance to remind him. Hurst will be facing a player who could be the first pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. But Clowney, too, will be facing a potential All-American.

There are no crazy video highlights of Hurst. The work of an offensive lineman doesn’t often translate into web clicks. Search for Clowney’s name on YouTube, and the first four videos that pop up have been watched more than 5 million times combined. Do the same thing for Hurst, and most popular result features James Hurst the bodybuilder – no relation to the UNC football player.

Yet if things go to plan, Hurst could very well follow Clowney in the first round of the NFL draft next May.

“I think James understands the importance, for his future, in the way he plays in that first game,” Fedora said.

Hurst admits he has thought about that. Yes, the focus is on the team, and the season, and becoming a leader on a line that lost three starters. Those are all important.

But so, too, are draft positioning and future earnings. And Hurst understands how one way or another, the way he performs against Clowney could have a great effect on his future.

“There’s a lot riding on you,” Hurst said. “They’re going to look at that game film, and (ask) how did he play against him? But on the other side of the coin, it is one game of the year, and it is the first game of the year. So there’s a lot on it, but at the same time you’ve got to take a little off of it because you know it’s the whole season that matters. But to me, it is the first game, and at that point it’s the only game I’ve played.”

Finding Clowney’s weakness

UNC began preseason practice Thursday. A couple weeks before that, Hurst entered the Tar Heels’ football offices not long after waking up to a voicemail from Fedora, energized and loud as always, informing him of how many days remained until the start of practice, and how many days remained before the South Carolina game.

Fedora is always counting down something. Days until the season-opener. Days until the game against rival N.C. State. The countdown to Columbia, S.C., though hasn’t been all that necessary during the summer. Hurst has kept his own mental clock, though he acknowledged his serious film study of Clowney wouldn’t begin until much closer to game day.

Not that Hurst needs to study much to appreciate the task ahead.

“A lot of defensive ends will have one or two moves that are good for them, or that work for them,” Hurst said. “But (Clowney has) got a whole pantry full of moves he’s able to do. So that’s why he’s a really great player and it’s hard to prepare for a guy that can do so much at any given point.”

If Hurst had identified any weaknesses in Clowney, he said he “probably would never say it, anyway.” But those weaknesses do exist, Hurst said. The challenge is finding them.

Hurst’s preparations undoubtedly will intensify as the days and weeks pass. There will be no shortage of film study – “It’s going to be fun,” Hurst said of that – and position meetings, strategizing the best way to guard arguably the best player in college football.

When the game arrives, the stage will be brighter than usual – a Thursday under the lights, with a football-hungry nation serving itself the first fix of the season. Hurst’s goals, he said, would remain the same: No sacks. No game-changing plays.

“He’s going to have his plays – you know that,” Hurst said of Clowney. “He’s a great player. He’ll earn those plays. But you’ve just got to keep them minimal and keep him quiet.”

‘Best left tackle in country’

Hurst and his quarterback, Bryn Renner, didn’t talk much about Clowney before preseason practice. Like Hurst, Renner has known for a while what’s coming. And like any other quarterback who plays South Carolina, Renner has answered a good number of Clowney questions.

During the ACC kickoff, Renner spoke with deference of Clowney and called him “the best player in the country.” But Renner made something else clear, too, amid the praise for the opposition.

“I’ve got 100 percent confidence in James Hurst,” Renner said. “He’s been with me for three years, and he’s the best left tackle in the country.”

By the end of this month, Hurst will have a chance to prove it. He believes his past has helped him prepare for this moment. There has been competition in practice against Robert Quinn and Quinton Coples, two former UNC defensive ends who became first-round draft picks. Hurst has blocked Da’Quan Bowers, the former Clemson All-American defensive end.

Clowney is different, though. Rarely has a defensive player entered a college season receiving more attention, and those who watch the season-opener to watch Clowney will also be watching plenty of Hurst. It’s a fact not lost on Hurst and one that has remained with him.

Hurst needs no additional reminders. He doesn’t have any pictures of Clowney, no pieces of motivation tacked to a bulletin board or mirror.

“I don’t even have to put anything up,” Hurst said. “I can just watch TV. … I can just open my eyes and I’ll see him somewhere.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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