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April 12, 2011Junior tight end Nelson Hurst has only played one season at North Carolina, but he's been around college football quite some time.
Originally recruited to play at Mississippi State under former head coach Sylvester Croom in the Class of 2008, Hurst played as a rookie for the Bulldogs before transferring to Chapel Hill in the spring of 2009.
Hurst didn't get to play for the Tar Heels in 2009 but he did to practice with the team that fall, so this spring marks the third different season that he's worked out with UNC.
"I'm only going to be a redshirt junior, but I feel like I've been around the college game for a long time already. I'm familiar with the speed and everything," said Hurst.
Hurst played mostly on special teams in his first UNC season on the field in 2010, but with injuries to first and second-team tight ends Zack Pianalto and Ed Barham, he got a chance to show what he could do late in the year.
"It's something that towards the end of the season last year with Ed hurting his ankle I got to play some," Hurst said.
With Pianalto and Barham now departed from the UNC roster, Hurst was one of just two scholarship tight ends on the Tar Heel roster this spring.
And with the second---redshirt freshman Sean Fitzpatrick---out for much of the spring with an injury, Hurst took most of the reps at tight end with both the first and second teams during practices and this past Saturday's Spring Showcase.
"It's gone pretty good," said Hurst about his spring effort. "I've been fairly consistent throughout the whole spring, which is something that I think I've really enjoyed, because being consistent, you can find the weaknesses in your game. And that's something I've been able to do."
"I've really been able to work on things that I know that I need to get better at that I see on a day-to-day basis, or something that I'm maybe not doing as well as I want to. So it's helping me be really productive this spring as far as improving."
One area in particular in which Hurst says he's really improved this spring is finding ways to elude defenders running downfield and getting open on passing plays.
Considering how valuable the tight end is in the passing game of North Carolina's pro-style offense, Hurst knows this area of his development is vital.
"I think that one thing that I've really developed---especially over the spring---is I've started getting really good at finding holes in zones when I'm running routes, and just giving the quarterback a good line to throw it into. It's just something that I've had to work on," Hurst said.
"I think a lot of people think of me as a blocker and I think that's something that I'm good at, but I think I've really improved a lot as far as settling into zones and finding weak spots in the defense."
Hurst is one of several UNC offensive players, including quarterback Bryn Renner, who is stepping into a starting role left behind by a multi-year starter.
It's especially exciting for Hurst after two years of mostly watching to know that now he's in position to make a major contribution to the Tar Heel offense.
"It's exciting being able to know that you're going to play. Last year it was kind of like, 'You're going to have to just wait it out,' and this year I know that I have the opportunity," he said.
While it's a relatively inexperienced group, Hurst likes the way the Carolina offense has developed this spring and rallied behind the team's deep and experienced offensive line.
"Obviously we're young in some positions, but I think we have some leaders. I think it really helps that we have so many offensive linemen coming back, because I think that's the key unit to an offense," Hurst said.
"With so many of those guys coming back---and they have confidence playing next to each other---it's something that we really are enjoying, because we're going to get good blocking up front."
"It's going to help Bryn out and our running game should be better with a more experienced line. So we're developing."
It was particularly enjoyable for Hurst to spend so much time this spring playing alongside his younger brother James Hurst, UNC's projected starter at left tackle.
"A lot of the time if I'm on the left side I'm right next to him (James). So it actually happens a pretty good amount of the time. It just depends (on the formation)," Hurst said.
Having played beside his brother for a couple of years in high school, it greatly aids both players that they've got so much familiarity with each other's tendencies.
"It's just one of those things where you've played with him for so long, and it kind of almost takes a high school game and moves it into college because you're playing with one of your high school teammates," the elder Hurst said.
Having been thrust into the mix last season, Hurst is confident that he'll be able to step up now that the Tar Heels really need him to play and make an impact on Saturdays.
"We're young, but I think especially after last year, we all know that even if we haven't played before, we have the ability. It's just about making it happen," he said.
The Tar Heels have a pair of incoming freshmen tight ends in Eric Ebron and Jack Tabb that could potentially push Hurst for playing time this summer in training camp, but Hurst has the clear advantage in experience.
Hurst is also showing some maturity about the fact that the starting job at tight end is not set in stone, and he's going to have to fight to earn it.
"Obviously nothing is mine until the first game, but the opportunity (to start) is something that I'm really excited about," he said.