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For Hurst, It’s Mission: Unenviable

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North Carolina's James Hurst will have his hands full on Thursday night when he faces South Carolina's all-world defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images.
North Carolina's James Hurst will have his hands full on Thursday night when he faces South Carolina's all-world defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images.

No college student should be taking a final exam in August. But, just as NASCAR opens its season in Daytona, James Hurst is facing his ultimate test in college football’s very first game.

Hurst, North Carolina’s senior left tackle, knows what’s at stake in Thursday's season opener against South Carolina. He admitted as much in a recent press conference. “Obviously, it’s the biggest matchup I ever had in my college career.”

And it’s been an accomplished college career to date: 36 starts at left tackle in three seasons, former Freshman All-American, All-ACC last year, Outland and Lombardi candidate this year.

Yet it’s this one game – opening night's marquee national game – that most NFL scouts will turn to first when evaluating Hurst as a pro prospect.

That’s because Hurst will be lined up against the best defensive player in college football. In a decade’s worth of college football. A guy you may have read about recently in the New York Times or seen lavished with freakish praise on ESPN. A guy you might have seen once or twice on YouTube (4.1 million clicks and counting), turning Vincent Smith into a faulty Pez dispenser.

The guy with the unstoppable game and the unforgettable name. Jadeveon Clowney. He even sounds like a super villain.

For Hurst, a pretty promising prospect in his own right, opportunity comes knocking on Thursday as loud as, well, as loud as a hit by Clowney. If scouts want to see how he handles a speed rush, he’ll get to show them against Clowney. If scouts want to see how he handles power, he’ll get to show them against Clowney. Pretty much anything scouts would ask, Hurst has the chance to answer on Thursday.

“My job is to control him,” Hurst said in that same presser. “I’m going to do everything I can to do that.”

So, what exactly is “everything” that Hurst hopes to be able to do to stop Clowney?

For starters, he’s got the slightest of size advantages. Hurst is 6-foot-7, 305 pounds; Clowney is 6-6, 274. Scouts are going to learn a lot about Hurst’s reach on Thursday night. If he can get his hands on Clowney, he just might be able to neutralize (or minimize) a lopsided speed disadvantage.

That’s not a knock on Hurst. He actually has pretty good feet. He’s smooth and mobile and never seems off balance. He takes good angles against speed rushers, and he rarely appears to be on his heels against a bull rush. That’s a product of equal parts technique and athleticism; Clowney might not face too many tackles this year with such a package.

You also have to believe Hurst won’t be left alone on Clowney all night. It would surprise no one to see North Carolina use the screen game to keep Clowney honest (that’s where the Heels are going to miss Gio Bernard most on Thursday). They have a veteran quarterback in Bryn Renner, who will look to get the ball off quickly (expect tight end Eric Ebron to get a ton of targets) before he becomes the latest victim on Clowney’s cavalcade of hits. Hurst also might get help in the occasional double-team, though the Heels replace Jonathan Cooper at left guard with freshman Caleb Peterson, who has only seen the likes of Clowney in monster movies.

Bottom line, no one expects Hurst to shut down Clowney entirely. Not NFL scouts, not even Hurst himself. If he grades out anywhere near 90 percent against such a dominant defensive end, it'll be a grade worth forever mounting on his fridge.

And certainly no one is looking for Hurst to lay out Clowney with one of the three or four pancakes he typically deals out every game. If he did, YouTube would have a new No. 1 video on its hands.