Hurst ready to lead UNC’s line

For an offensive tackle like North Carolina senior James Hurst, the prospect of your assignment blowing by you and drilling your teammate — with little you can do but trail behind and pick the teammate off the ground — is devastating.

“Our job is to protect those guys in the backfield,” offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said. “You miss a block, your quarterback could be in the hospital that day. They trust us and in turn we have to have unbelievable focus.”

South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is the kind of player who tests that trust.

The 6-foot-6, 274-pound Heisman Trophy candidate recorded 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss last season. Most memorably, on a play immortalized as “The Hit,” Clowney broke through the Michigan offensive line and swallowed up running back Vincent Smith.

Clowney’s legend grows with each replay of “The Hit,” and he was recently called “He Who Cannot Be Blocked” in a New York Times profile.

Hurst — the most seasoned UNC veteran with 36 starts — intends to block him.

“It’s going to be 60 minutes of probably the best player I’ve ever got to block, but I’m looking forward to it,” Hurst said. “He’s a great player, and if you want to take your game to the next level, you’re going to have to play the best player.”

Hurst, who at 6-foot-7, 305-pounds was selected to the preseason All-ACC first team, has NFL aspirations, and his matchup against Clowney will likely be watched closely by NFL scouts. CBSSports.com projects Hurst as the sixth best offensive tackle in the 2014 draft class, which could land him in the draft’s first two rounds.

“If you’re going to have to go into a contest where their best guy is out there, you want to put your best guy out there, and I have 100 percent confidence in (Hurst),” Kapilovic said.

Though Thursday’s test looms large, UNC has a season beyond Clowney and South Carolina, and it is by that body of work that Hurst’s offensive line will be judged.

After three years of playing with veterans, Hurst now holds seniority, and has adjusted to his new role as vocal leader of the line.

“Middle of the game, say we have some adversity and are down a few scores, I feel like I’ve got to say something to the guys to get them going a little bit, and turn the tide,” he said.

Vocality doesn’t necessarily come naturally to the hulking yet relatively soft-spoken Hurst, but Kapilovic believes Hurst acts as a perfect foil to the coach’s bad cop role, lifting his teammates’ spirits after the position coach scolds them.

Offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said Hurst is the right kind of role model for the offensive line, which also features redshirt junior center Russell Bodine and redshirt sophomore left guard Landon Turner, who have 18 combined starts.

“With some guys that are young, that haven’t had a whole lot of experience,” Anderson said, “to be able to draw from a guy that’s calm, that’s experienced, that’s been through the fire as many reps as he has, that’s got to be helpful for everybody.”

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