By AARON BEARD
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — James Hurst would prefer to work in relative anonymity as he blocks for North Carolina tailbacks or quarterback Bryn Renner this fall. The senior knows he'll instead get plenty of scrutiny as the top returnee to the Tar Heels' offensive line and an NFL prospect.
The 6-foot-7, 305-pound offensive tackle said he's ready for that pressure that comes with that status.
"It's a challenge I've never had in my career," Hurst said. "I've been lucky enough to play next to older guys who are good and had respected reputations so I never had to worry about that. But as you get older, you get new responsibilities, so I'm looking forward to it."
Hurst, a native of Plainfield, Ind., arrived in Chapel Hill as a midyear enrollee in 2010 under former coach Butch Davis. He has started all but two games for the Tar Heels during his career and is a two-time second-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference pick.
Last year, he was part of a veteran line that helped tailback Gio Bernard run for a second straight 1,200-yard season on an offense that set UNC records for scoring and total offense.
Offensive guard Jonathan Cooper, who started alongside Hurst on the left side, was the No. 7 overall pick in the draft in April. Fellow linemen Brennan Williams (third round) and Travis Bond (seventh) were also selected, leaving Hurst and center Russell Bodine as the most experienced returnees this fall.
Hurst has been a preseason all-ACC and all-America pick by several publications, not to mention among the top line prospects for the 2014 NFL draft.
Hurst graded out around 90 percent and allowed one sack last year as the Tar Heels ran a no-huddle offense averaging nearly 75 plays per game. But offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said he is pushing Hurst to be a more vocal leader and dominating blocker.
Kapilovic, who came with head coach Larry Fedora from Southern Mississippi before last year, called Hurst one of the smartest linemen he's ever coached.
"In most people's mind, he had a good year last year, a very good year — solid," Kapilovic said. "But in his mind and even in my mind, it needs to be better. We've talked a lot about 'What are you going to do to stand out this year?' It's not about just getting your job done. It's got to be more."
Hurst said that challenge initially made him nervous.
"It definitely wasn't comfortable for me," he said. "I started realizing these guys are gone, who's here now. It's kind of scary at first, but at the same time, you've got to do it. If I want to have a good year, then that's something I need to do and that's in my control. So I need to step up to the plate and do that."
Tim Hurst, James' father and a former offensive lineman at Alabama, said his son is ready to handle the additional responsibility. He pointed to his son's work ethic, which picked up as a high school sophomore to make him one of the nation's top prep linemen.
"The thing about James is he doesn't ever seem to get a big head about it," Tim Hurst said. "He's always been real level-headed and he's always been more concerned about the other guy than himself most of the time. I think he'll handle it all very well, very well."
The Aug. 29 opener at South Carolina will offer an immediate challenge. Hurst will likely find himself charged with blocking Associated Press first-team All-American Jadeveon Clowney.
Hurst said he's hearing plenty of questions about going against Clowney, who had 13 sacks last year and is regarded as a potential No. 1 overall NFL draft pick. He said it's "a big opportunity" and knows it could impact his draft chances.
Still, if Hurst has his way, no one will pay attention to his work during the season. Fans will be too busy watching Renner throw the ball downfield or Bernard's backfield replacement find open running lanes for big gains in a high-scoring offense.
"It's so cool to see it all click at the exact same time — five guys have great blocks and then have the running back just hit it," Hurst said. "Everyone sees him running for 70 yards. I watch the film and I see five linemen in a span of 3 yards having perfect blocks. It's awesome to me."