According to Hurst, size and physical strength alone haven't helped him navigate life in Chapel Hill. A laid-back personality may be his most valuable asset on and off the field, regardless of the situation.
"I learned through the coaching changes and everything else we went through not to put unnecessary pressure on myself," says Hurst, as he reflects on the turbulence the program faced while he was an underclassman. "It makes things more complicated than they already are. There are only so many things you can control, and that's what you worry about."
Hurst is level-headed for a college senior, but don't mistake his cool approach for a lack of intensity or low motivation. The Plainfield, Indiana product has always set big goals for himself and worked tirelessly to achieve them.
As a highly-touted high school senior, he knew he wanted to start immediately in college; he enrolled early to give himself that chance. Although he didn't get the starting call against LSU in the 2010 opener in Atlanta, he was on the field for most of the offensive snaps. He's played the first Tar Heels' possession of all but one game since.
"I didn't start my first game here, which was disappointing, but I did play the majority of that game, and from that point on I feel like I've gotten better and better," Hurst says. "I think that's where my work ethic really kicked in at Carolina. I knew what I wanted to do—I've set those goals."
With 36 starts to his credit entering this season, Tar Heel fans know he didn't have to return for another year. Hurst would have been a sure-fire NFL draft pick if he'd declared. But he had unfinished business in Chapel Hill. He wanted to complete what he started academically by graduating in August. He also wanted a shot to accomplish the goals he set when he stepped on campus: being the first tackle selected in the NFL draft, making first-team All-American, and winning the Outland Trophy.
"I feel like I'm in a position to at least contend for those," Hurst says.
While receiving any of those individual accolades would be an incredible achievement, Hurst doesn't lose sleep at night worrying about them. Instead, he focuses on the things he knows he must do to get better. This is the most important standard by which he evaluates his on-field performance, the one he puts the most stock in.
"It was an easy decision for me to stay," Hurst says. "I didn't feel I had a good enough season to go pro. All-ACC is not enough. All the awards and attention go a long way toward boosting your confidence, but at the end of the day, when I turn on the film, the question is how I feel about me. Whether or not I would have been drafted last year, who knows, but even if I had, I don't think I would have been ready for the NFL."
Tar Heel players, coaches, and fans are thrilled to have Hurst back for his senior campaign. In 2013, an offensive line without his presence would be hard to imagine. But Tar Heel fans couldn't have blamed him if he'd decided to forego his final season. For three years the left tackle was part of a talented group of linemen, a core that included Jonathan Cooper, Brennan Williams, and Travis Bond, each of whom was selected in the 2013 draft. As Hurst was making his decision to join his teammates at the next level, he leaned on Cooper, who had faced a similar situation the year prior, for advice.
"I talked to Coop about it for a long time," Hurst says. "I saw how stressful a decision it was for him the year before. He could have left after his junior season—he had a lot of things going for him—but he stayed, it worked out for him, and now I'm looking forward to taking a similar path. Coop will tell you that coming back was the best decision of his life."
Today, as the elder statesman of the Tar Heel offensive line, Hurst prepares for a new set of challenges, including being the veteran leader of a group of young linemen. He considers himself lucky to have played next to Cooper for three years, but he looks forward to suiting up beside teammates who will be turning to him for leadership.
"You only get one shot at being a leader—your senior year—so I'm excited," Hurst says. "I've been helping the guys get comfortable with playing together. For me it's going to be a really different season getting used to playing with not just a new left guard, but with such a new group on much of the line. Say what you will about our inexperience, but we'll be one unit. I'm looking forward to proving ourselves."
Hurst's position as the leader of the offensive line makes perfect sense to his teammates, from the backs he blocks for to senior signal caller Bryn Renner, whose expectations for his left tackle and the rest of the line match those of Hurst himself.
"The last two years I've been fortunate to have arguably the top offensive line in the country," Renner says. "Luckily we have the best tackle in the country in James. He's the smartest player I've ever played with. And alongside James we'll have the guy who sets the tempo in Russell Bodine. Having them return, and with the young guys who improved so much in the spring, I think makes us strong up front. Once they get more reps together as a group, they'll get more confident, and then my job will be easier."
Hurst acknowledges that the line will be a work in progress at the start of the season, but he's optimistic that the group will come together quicker than many might think.
"They aren't where they can be yet, but they're working," says Hurst of the underclassmen. "It helps a lot to have Russ in there at center. People say center and left tackle are two really important positions on the O-line. I agree with that. That's the blind side and the command point on the line, basically, so having those two positions returning and having a guy like Landon Turner, who started several games last year, will help us mature a lot quicker than most inexperienced lines would."
When Hurst mentions Bodine and Turner, he's talking about his roommates and best friends on the line, the guys he's going to turn to for help stabilizing the group. The bond the trio shares off the field allows them to understand each other well on the field.
"What's happening on the field is easy to see for the three of us," says Hurst. "Landon and Russ play right next to each other, so a lot comes more naturally, with less communication, which helps some of the younger guys who are next to them. Especially for the offensive line, spending more time together makes you comfortable around each other and also makes you want to play for the guy next to you more, which is awesome and one of the best parts of being on the line."
But how Hurst plans to lead his teammates will be an important component of the 2013 season. It's not enough for him to become a leader simply by playing well and being a senior; Hurst's leadership style must evolve. According to his coaches, including offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic, Hurst has always been more of a lead-by-example guy. Where Jonathan Cooper vocalized what he wanted and expected from the offensive line, Hurst has more often done what's asked of him, done it well, and done it quietly. Head coach Larry Fedora and the rest of the coaching staff have gotten on the big left tackle about speaking up.
"That's been a big challenge from the coaches," Hurst says. "I've talked to Coach Fedora and Coach Kap one-on-one several times. They expect me to be a leader. But I'm also challenging myself—I expect it of me. So stepping into that leadership role is going to happen."
Kapilovic believes that Hurst has what it takes to make that progress. Since arriving in Chapel Hill with the new coaching staff, he has been impressed with Hurst's approach and understanding of the game.
"James has always been a leader," Kapilovic says. "He's shared leadership through his actions, but not verbally. His teammates need him to be more verbal during the offseason while working out and in drills during the season. With the help of Russell Bodine, we expect him to step up more and push guys to work harder."
Hurst's cerebral approach allows him to understand his teammates and get along well with them, which has helped him learn how to work with different personalities.
"Leading by example is good for some people, but vocal leading is necessary to drive others," Hurst says. "Everyone is different, so you have to be able to play both sides and you have to know your guys and know who responds to what."
While leadership is an important focus for Hurst, he views his final season as an opportunity for improvement as a lineman as well. He wasn't satisfied with his performance in 2012, and he returned to become a better blocker and a more complete lineman.
"I need to refine my technique," Hurst says. "My first couple years I really focused on learning the speed of the game and anticipating what's going to happen next. At this point in my career, I've played a lot of games, I've seen a lot of different looks, I've seen a lot of different teams. Now it's time for me to look at myself and really just work on my technique to become as efficient as I can be."
Kapilovic acknowledges that Hurst possesses the physical tools and the natural ability to be special. But to reach the next level in his development, he thinks Hurst needs to get mean.
"He's a very good player, one of smartest I've ever coached," Kapilovic says. "He's a real student of the game, he asks good questions, and he gets it after one time of me telling him. But he has to add something else to be great. He has to do things that help him stand out. He has to finish blocks to the end and pancake guys. He has to gain that nasty demeanor. Just getting the block done is not good enough. He needs that second and third effort downfield—that will elevate him to the next level."
That's the sort of honest feedback Hurst appreciates, and hearing it is one of the reasons he knew that returning to Carolina for his senior season would serve him well.
"Coach Kap doesn't care who you are," Hurst says. "He's going to push you every single play, which is huge, especially for a senior who has played (so many) games. I still need to be pushed like everyone else to get better and better. So I know he's going to do that, and he expects me to rise to the challenge and I expect to do the same."
Hurst also returned so that he could prove himself against great competition—so that he can be pushed every single play by his opponent. The matchups he'll face in 2013 remind him that he's already worked against some of the better defensive linemen in the nation during his career, both on the practice field and against opposing defenses. And he's quick to credit them for preparing him for his final season.
"It's been huge for me being able to practice against great linemen," he says. "When I first got here, I was practicing against Rob Quinn, and then it was Quinton Coples, and now it's Kareem (Martin). I faced Da'Quan Bowers when I was a freshman and Andre Branch. Experience is everything. Blocking those guys and knowing how athletic they are and what they're capable of doing definitely gives me an experience advantage. I use that and carry that with me."
Looking back at his previous 36 games started, however, Hurst expects his 37th start against South Carolina to be the most challenging.
"Obviously the first game of the year is going to be the biggest individual challenge I've had as a college football player, which is fun," Hurst says. "It's going to be a great time, so let's go out there and do it."
Hurst plans to embrace his final year in Chapel Hill before moving on to the next phase of his life. He also plans to have some laughs before leaving for the next level. But there's one laugh he can do without. Although he enjoys ribbing his starting quarterback for his penchant for staying up rather than sliding, he doesn't need to see too much of it this fall. He appreciates the message of toughness Renner sends to his teammates by taking on defenders and trying to gain extra yards, but he needs his starting quarterback on the field.
"It's motivational, but at the same time, we give him a lot of crap about it," says Hurst, laughing. "I only need to see that once and then I get it. So just stay safe and slide the rest of the game—he played baseball, right?"
Hurst expects his experience to factor significantly into the 2013 Tar Heels, and as usual, he expects the most out of his team.
"This is my last season," he says. "We're going to set the goals high and roll with it. You can't predict the BCS picture. The only goals you really can set are to win the Coastal Division again, go to the ACC championship, win that game, and get placed in the best bowl. They're big goals, but last year we got a taste of it and we know what it takes to be in position to do those things. We're ready to try to do it again."
Whether the Tar Heels reach those goals is anyone's guess. But Hurst has an opportunity to shape his legacy at Carolina through his play. In the end, when he's completed his long career in Chapel Hill, having been a staple of the Tar Heels offensive line and program, he wants to be remembered as a hard worker, a leader by example, and someone who could be trusted on and off the field.
"In pressure situations, I want my teammates, the coaches, and our fans to know what to expect from me," Hurst says. "I want to be remembered as a stabilizing force."