James Hurst has always been big. And strong. And athletic. But that isn't what makes him a great football player.
Yes, standing 6-foot-6 and possessing dancer's feet at 290 pounds certainly helps. Then again, there are plenty of big, athletic kids who can't come close to matching Hurst on the football field.
In addition to being a physical specimen, the Plainfield (Plainfield, Ind.) senior offensive lineman also happens to be one of the smartest players in the country.
"He possesses incredible intelligence," says Plainfield coach Brian Woodard. "He understands everything about the game of football. He gets the big-picture things and the little details, and he can make adjustments at game speed."
Along with his prototypical size and skill, that intellect is what has separated Hurst from the pack. He is rated the state's No. 1 offensive lineman in the ESPNU 150 and the nation's No. 95 recruit overall.
"I think that the mental aspect is one of my strengths," Hurst says. "I want to be smarter than everyone I'm lining up against. When you understand the game, that opens things up, and those intricacies can help you out tremendously."
His football acumen comes in part from his father, Tim, who played on the offensive line at Alabama during the late 1970s. Tim passed those football genes on to James and his older brother, Nelson, as they both grew to well over 6 feet tall by the time they entered middle school.
Not content to rely on size alone, the younger Hurst worked hard to learn the finer points of the game. He found his father to be a fountain of knowledge.
"My dad played for Bear Bryant at Alabama, so he really helped me and my brother get into the game," Hurst says. "He coached us when we were young, and one of the things he taught us was the mental part of the game - how to keep your head, how to handle certain situations, stuff like that."
Armed with that advanced know-how, Hurst entered high school and immediately locked down a starting spot as a freshman.
"Athletically, he wasn't LeBron James back then," Woodard says. "But he knew he could do it, and he outperformed a lot of the juniors and seniors and did a really nice job for us as a freshman. That said a lot about his ability, his mental toughness and his work ethic."
Hurst picked up Woodard's run-heavy option scheme quickly, and his powerful drive-blocking helped the team set a school rushing record and reach the Class 4A sectional finals.
These days, Woodard has entrusted Hurst with the responsibility of making the line calls because of his ability to read defenses. The star pupil repays that trust by making sure he knows the game plan inside and out. Last year, Hurst anchored the team's offensive attack as the Quakers again broke the school rushing record with 3,083 yards and reached the sectional title game.
Zionsville (Zionsville, Ind.) coach Larry McWhorter saw Plainfield up close in the sectional final last year and came away impressed with Hurst's performance.
"When we started watching tape for the game, he really stood out," McWhorter says. "Then when I watched the film after we played them, I was blown away. He's one of the finest offensive linemen I've seen at this level."
Along with his dominance between the lines, Hurst grew more comfortable in his role as one of the team leaders last season. Teammates can now turn to him when they need help with the playbook or advice on how to balance schoolwork and football. Woodard wants him to expand that role and be more vocal on the field and in the locker room this fall.
"I want to take on that responsibility," Hurst says. "I want to take on as much as I can. Every year you're going to lose seniors and you need guys to step up and fill those leadership roles. I want to do it this year."
So how good can Hurst be? Woodard believes he has All-American potential at the next level (Hurst has committed to North Carolina, where he will be joined by his older brother, who transferred from Mississippi State). His run blocking has never been a question, and he proved he could excel as a pass protector at the U.S. Army National Combine last winter, using his quickness and athleticism to stymie some of the country's best defensive prospects.
And that's without factoring in Hurst's greatest strength.
As usual, Hurst will rely on his brain to help ease the transition to the next level. He's book smart as well as street smart, and he is an elite classroom performer. He entered his senior year with a 4.25 GPA, and he's on track to graduate early.
If all goes according to plan, Hurst will graduate in December, allowing him to enroll early at UNC and get a jump on football activities in the spring.
"I started thinking about graduating (early) at the beginning of last year," he says. "I've heard of other people doing it, and it made sense for me. It wasn't that difficult, just some online courses over the summer.
"Now I can get in there for spring football and start learning everything - the playbook, the practices. That can really give me a head start as an incoming freshman. It seemed like a really good idea."
And of course, Hurst knows a good idea when he sees one.