INDIANAPOLIS — Offensive tackle James Hurst’s senior season at North Carolina started with a bang and ended with a bad break.
In the Tar Heels’ season-opening 27-10 loss at South Carolina, Hurst held Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the highest-rated player in the draft, without a sack. The performance earned Hurst rave reviews and solidified his standing as an early-round draft prospect.
But Hurst broke his left fibula in the first quarter of UNC’s Belk Bowl victory against Cincinnati in Charlotte, throwing his draft status into doubt and making his homecoming trip to the combine more of a meet-and-greet affair.
Hurst, who grew up in suburban Indianapolis, visited with teams at the combine but did not participate in any of the drills. He started walking two weeks ago and hopes to be full strength for UNC’s Pro Day on March 25.
“It’s my full physical audition,” Hurst said.
Hurst started a school-record 49 games for the Tar Heels, but his matchup with Clowney is the one reporters wanted to talk to him about in Indy.
“There was a lot of hype going into that game, my biggest matchup I’ve ever had personally. So I was really excited about that,” Hurst said. “On top of that, it was a North Carolina-South Carolina rivalry. So it was a big game, a lot of atmosphere going on. It was a fun matchup. He got me a couple times. But I feel like I held my own.”
It was a sign of things to come for Clowney, who was visibly winded on a hot, muggy day in Columbia playing against the Tar Heels’ fast-paced attack.
“He was tired. That definitely took some of the edge off,” Hurst said. “I’m used to that. That’s how our offense is run. We’re an up-tempo offense. So you kind of expect the guy across from you to be tired.”
Clowney finished with three sacks in his final season after his 13-sack campaign in 2012.
The drop in production and the perception Clowney took plays off and nursed nagging injuries to preserve his draft status have some analysts questioning his heart.
But Hurst believes Clowney is deserving of the No. 1 pick.
“He’s extremely explosive. He’s an amazing athlete. You guys are all going to see that, not that you don’t already know,” Hurst said. “But you’re going to see it again when he works out at the combine (Monday). He’s a great player. He’s going to make a really good player for an NFL team here shortly.”
Meanwhile, the 6-5, 296-pound Hurst will try to prove to teams he can be a good NFL player, too. Hurst, whose father Tim was an offensive lineman at Alabama in the 1970s, was a first-team, all-ACC pick his final two seasons.
He’s generally been viewed as a mid-round prospect since his injury, which was severe enough that ESPN did not show replays of it during the Belk Bowl broadcast.
Hurst has been rehabbing in San Diego, and came to Indy a day before the combine last week so he could visit with his family. While he didn’t work out, Hurst has four years of game tapes for scouts to study.
The Clowney film be a good place for them to start.
“I fired out a couple times on some play-action passes and did not have success with that. So just kind of let him come to me a little bit more. I found that to be a lot more successful,” Hurst said.
“It’s the first game of the year, so everyone’s got a lot of kinks they’ve got to work out to get the feel of football again.”
In a month, Hurst will be trying to work the kinks out all over again.