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March 8, 2013

Hurst pacing himself for big matchup

North Carolina left tackle James Hurst made the decision to return to Chapel Hill for his senior season instead of heading to the NFL after nearly three full seasons as a starter for the Tar Heels.

Those who attended UNC can tell you that the senior year in Chapel Hill is truly one of the greatest years of one's life, and Hurst wanted that experience for himself before hopefully moving on to the professional ranks next year.

"I'm excited about it (returning to college). It's a big opportunity. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing to be a senior," Hurst told Tar Heel Illustrated this week after UNC's first spring practice.

It's exciting from the standpoint that there's stability for Hurst going into his senior season without a coaching transition and the second year of Larry Fedora and Blake Anderson's offense, along with the fact that he's heading into his third season as a full-time starter.

"It's exciting (to be back for spring football again). It's year two with the new coaches. It's good to have a little stability around here. We're excited to get better and try to get back to the ACC Championship Game, and this time actually be able to play in it."

Hurst isn't currently game-ready, as he works to get back to full strength this spring as he recovers an injured shoulder.

He's been seen this winter in the 'Blue Dawn' workouts and Wednesday's first spring practice wearing an orange 'limited' jersey, but he's hoping to shed that jersey soon and get back to a navy blue offensive jersey.

"It's improving fast," Hurst said of his medical setback. "I don't want to do anything to injure myself any more, and we've talked about that with my coaches and the trainers and everything. We're just trying to get it under control and make sure I'm ready for the season."

Even without him currently in the regular rotation going full-go, Hurst's immense experience (he started 12 of 13 games as a true freshman in 2010 and all 25 UNC games over the 2011 and 2012 seasons) is something that he hopes will rub off on his younger teammates as he paces himself back to 100 percent.

"I've been lucky to have some games under my belt and some experience. I like to know that guys on the team trust me, and I look forward to the leadership role that has voided by (the departure of) Sly (Williams), Kevin (Reddick), and Coop (Jonathan Cooper). We're going to have to fill that, but I look forward to the opportunity of doing that," Hurst told us.

While Hurst may not be dealing with professionals right away this summer, he need not look any farther than UNC's season opener August 29 at South Carolina for motivation to have a great offseason.

Instead of preparing for his first pro season later this summer, Hurst will be on the practice fields at UNC gearing up for a head-to-head showdown with the biggest impact defensive player playing college football today in South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney.

Clowney would have already left for the NFL if the rules allowed it, and if he doesn't get injured his junior year he's got an outstanding chance of being the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.

How far Hurst falls behind the Gamecock phenom in that year's Draft order could depend a lot on how he performs against him under the lights at Williams-Brice Stadium on the ESPN Thursday night prime time stage.

Surely there will be scores of NFL scouts at that game.

And the better Hurst plays, the more money he likely will have made for himself when it comes time to negotiate his first pro contract.

"It's exciting. It's not an everyday thing (getting to take on a player like Clowney)," Hurst said. "That's going to be definitely the biggest matchup I've ever been a part of. But I'm excited about it. People would kill for that opportunity."

Another opportunity that Hurst and some other Tar Heel players got this week was the chance to meet and chat with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who came to Chapel Hill to participate in a forum on concussions.

"It was great (meeting the Commissioner)," Hurst said. "It was a big-time opportunity just to be able to meet him. We got to talk to him for a good amount of time. He's a real cool guy. He's laid back. You see him on TV serious, but he's a real cool guy. He's got a lot ahead of him, but I think he really loves what he does, and that's awesome."

"We talked about maybe seeing him next year in New York (at the 2014 Draft), which would be just a dream. We just talked about whatever. Whatever's going on. It was a real relaxed conversation," Hurst added.

Given that it's a showdown between former five-star recruits and likely high NFL Draft selections, the head-to-head battle with Clowney is going to get a great deal of attention between now and late August, and Hurst is certainly going to get asked about it a lot.

All he knows is that he's going to prepare himself for the opportunity, and that he's looking forward to the showcase game and the exposure for the UNC football program it will bring.

"I'm going to be ready. I know he (Clowney) will be. It will be fun. It will be a fun game to get some national recognition for our team," Hurst said.




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