Saints lineman James Hurst ready for action wherever needed
“To protect and serve” is a well-known motto adopted by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1963 that has been used by military and police units nationwide.
The words also may apply to New Orleans Saints offensive lineman James Hurst.
Entering his third campaign in New Orleans and his ninth overall in the NFL, Hurst is assigned to protect Saints quarterbacks and serve anywhere necessary along the offensive line.
In 2021, he was second on the team with 941 offensive snaps with 15 starts. Hurst graded 12th in the league with a 69.8 mark by Pro Football Focus among all NFL offensive tackles, drawing only four flags while only allowing three sacks.
Hurst has been plugged in all spots along the offensive line except at center, but for the 30-year old veteran seems to fit the crucial left tackle role like a comfortable pair of shoes.
“Just the overall experience there,” stated the 6-foot-5, 310-pound veteran about his comfort level. “I’ve spent more time there. I spent four years in college at left tackle. In my first three (NFL) seasons, I played 20-something games three, a couple of seasons at left guard and a couple games at right tackle (in New Orleans). It just all comes back to left tackle. That’s where I’ve got the most starts, the most experience.”
Hurst was the second rated tackle in the nation from the recruiting class of 2010. He hit the ground running as a true freshman at North Carolina, tasked with the assignment of squaring off against LSU in the season opener, facing talented pass rushers Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. In 12 games that season, he graded out a team-high 83% including 33 knockdown blocks.
Throughout the course of his time with the Tar Heels, Hurst held his own on a regular basis against future NFL Pro Bowlers like Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina) and Aaron Donald (Pittsburgh) in a total of 48 contests. He was joined on the first-team All-ACC squad in 2013 by his current Saints teammate, Florida State QB Jameis Winston.
“I played against some really great talent in the ACC,” Hurst recalls. “I feel like that jump, when you get to the NFL, is not quite as big. When you you come into the NFL, you readily see that high caliber of talent. You get used to it pretty quickly.”
Fate threw him a curve as his college football days drew to a conclusion. Hurst suffered a broken leg in the 2013 Belk Bowl, leaving him unable to participate in the pre-NFL draft testing which hurt his stock.
After he signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2014, Hurst earned 13 starts at left tackle during his initial two campaigns. In 2017, he made 16 starts at left guard. Next came 10 starts at right tackle in ’18. He has started 22 games with the Saints at all guard and tackle spots.
Fortunately, Hurst doesn’t care where he is as long as he’s on the field. “I like to be versatile,” he explained. “I have played a lot of different positions. I have played most at tackle, so at the end of the day, you do whatever you can wherever they ask you to go. You go and be the best player at that position that you can be.”
The New Orleans Saints spent one of their two 2022 1st round picks on left tackle Trevor Penning, a talent who many feel is the heir apparent to the left tackle job. It serves as not only competition for Hurst, but motivation as well.
“Drafting someone that high, that happens so often at your position every single year. There are rookies arriving. There is always going to include four to five new guys. They’re young, they’re strong, they’re motivated. They are all dedicated. So every year, you feel that pressure. It keeps you on edge. It keeps you going. It gives you something to want to get up in the morning and go.”
The roles were reversed for James in 2015. Coming in undrafted, he was fortunate enough to share the offensive line with an eight-time Pro Bowler and twice first-team All-Pro, Ravens guard Marshall Yanda. Now a member of the Baltimore Ravens Ring of Honor, Yanda took the young rookie under his wing and set the standard.
“Marshall Yanda was in his eighth year. His mentality, his work ethic, the way he approached the game. I wanted to model myself in every way that I could after him. He’d played some tackle, some guard. He was a great model for me.”
Hurst has shared the huddle with Drew Brees and Lamar Jackson, both great players at the quarterback position. Their talents though led to much different approaches offensively. Hurst has experienced less overall change in scheme in New Orleans even after the Bress retirement.
“The difference in offensive scheme from Drew to now, I don’t think it’s a ton. At the end of the day, this offense is pretty similar. There may be a slightly different player or two, but that doesn’t affect what the offensive line is doing.”
Hurst understands his evolution as a lineman is an ongoing process, something that requires fine tuning on a daily basis. He is blessed to have a pair of NFL veteran linemen coaching his position these days with offensive line coach Doug Marrone, who played with the Dolphins and Saints, and assistant Zach Streif, a 12-year pro with New Orleans, on the staff.
“It’s awesome, just guys knowing what I’m trying to do. They have been there. I have total confidence in both of them. They in turn have confidence in us. We can have a dialogue back and forth. ‘Here is this technique, try this’. We can talk about it what needs to improve, how to improve. There are a lot of ways to skin a cat. It’s great to have both of them as former players to be able to know so much with all of the experience between them that we can lean on, talk to them and learn from.”
Hurst is optimistic in regard to the direction the franchise under the guidance of new head coach Dennis Allen. “We had a glimpse of that last year with (Sean Payton’s COVID) situation. (Allen) was great then. No one expects anything but greatness from him. He’s a great leader, a great motivator. He’s going to get us on the perfect path, exactly where we need to be.”
Like Allen who stepped up to coach the Saints sans Payton in a shutout win at Tampa Bay, Hurst is expected to rise to the occasion whenever and wherever the team needs him.
With his track record, Hurst is a safe bet to get the job done.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, Rene Nadeau has been involved in sports ever since his earliest memories. Rene played basketball, wrestled, ran track, and was an All-District running back in football at John F. Kennedy High School. He went on to be a member of the LSU football program, developing a passion for the game in even…