By Jim Gehman, Player Engagement Insider
James Hurst closed out his University of North Carolina career in the 2013 Belk Bowl against Cincinnati by breaking his left leg. Not an ideal situation for someone hoping to embark on a career in professional football.
The two-time All-ACC offensive tackle was unable to participate in on-field drills at the NFL Combine, but did meet with team coaches and scouts. Hurst, however, was not drafted. Again, not an ideal situation, but he made the best of it.
“When you’re drafted, you don’t really have a say in what team you end up on,” Hurst said. “But being undrafted, there’s somewhat of a choice. You and your agent get together and look at the different situations, coaches, depth charts, and kind of put yourself in a situation to succeed.
“We had about 20 teams (call about signing as a free agent following the Draft), but luckily, my agent handled most of those. It was a good feeling, but at the end of the day you know you weren’t drafted for a reason, so you’ve got to do something to get better.”
Hurst chose to sign with the Baltimore Ravens.
“I knew it was a good opportunity at the Ravens as far as the depth chart was concerned,” he said. “That was part of the reason why I came here. Juan Castillo was the O-line coach and he’s got a good track record of developing younger guys and getting them plenty of reps. Those were some of the factors in choosing the Ravens, and then once I got here, it was just improving, battling with myself to make sure I was better today than I was yesterday.”
The opportunity for Hurst to get better day after day was strengthened by having veteran teammates to learn from.
“(Guard/tackle) Marshal Yanda’s kind of everyone’s example just because of the way he works, the way hew conducts himself,” Hurst said. “But we had a pretty veteran offensive line. Eugene Monroe was the left tackle. Kelechi Osemele was the left guard. Just being able to watch those guys work and their different playing styles, it helped me get kind of a clear view of things that worked. Just having that experienced group in front of me, I think, was a big bonus.”
In addition to playing on special teams, Hurst, who has not missed a game during his NFL career, made five starts at left tackle as a rookie. The following season, he made eight starts at left tackle or tight end in the jumbo formation. And in 2016, he made three starts at both tackle positions.
“It was unique. Definitely not boring,” Hurst said with a laugh. “We had several injuries here and there, so it was kind of a shuffle. But really invaluable playing time, especially as a rookie.”
This season, Hurst opened training camp as the starting right tackle, but was moved to left guard after Alex Lewis was lost for the season with a torn labrum in his shoulder. He’s now listed on Baltimore’s depth chart as the first-string left guard and second-string left tackle and right tackle.
If nothing else, the guy’s versatile.
“Luckily, I’ve had a lot of experience playing different positions, so that’s definitely helped just knowing that hey, if something happens, I’ve played there before,” Hurst said. “I’ve gotten reps, I can be confident in what I’m doing at whatever position.
“[The biggest challenges between playing inside at guard or outside at tackle are] mostly about your technique and then the guys you’re facing. On the edge at tackle, you’ve got a lot more space, a lot more speed; you’ve got to be able to cover ground. Whereas inside, there’s less space, but you’ve got a lot more power. You’ve got bigger guys in there trying to push the pocket back. So, it’s all about your technique differences and understanding the player that you’re going against.
“Team to team is different. Some teams rotate in a lot of guys. You could be blocking four, maybe five different guys in a game. Other teams, you know you’re going to get the same guy almost every play. So, it’s definitely knowing the scouting report, watching the film, knowing their tendencies and knowing what to look out for.”
Hurst is understandably proud that the Ravens coaches have shown confidence in him.
“A huge part of being a good O-lineman is being consistent and being reliable,” Hurst said. “That’s something you work towards every day. But, yeah, knowing different positions and having the coaches’ trust that you can play those different positions and just being given an opportunity, it is an honor. But you’ve got to be prepared for that and hold up your end of the bargain.”