COLUMBIA, S.C. — Hayden Hurst made the most of his first two public moments in Williams-Brice Stadium in the past few days.
The South Carolina tight end — who he figures to be one of the centerpieces of the Gamecocks offense — provided glimpses of what he is capable of as a sophomore . On Monday, that meant coming across as quarterback Perry Orth split two defenders with a pass to the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Hurst for a touchdown.
And two days later, it meant Hurst sprinting down the seam and rising up between two defenders to haul down an impressive contested catch for a 30-yard gain.
“Being a tight end, I think he was more of a receiver last year,” tight ends coach Pat Washington said. “He’s got receiver skills. He can play the outside and play receiver. But, more importantly, he has gotten better as a blocker. He’s more physical at the point of attack, which is really, really, good and something we need. Plus, he can get out and play like a receiver.
“We are excited because he can run and he’s strong.”
Hurst’s overall skill set and athleticism have Washington excited, along with his becoming a more well-rounded player in recent months. Hurst, in turn, credited Washington with much of the polishing of his game.
After having eight catches for 106 yards in 2015, Hurst could be in line for a big season.
Washington expects to line up his players all over the field and use them in many ways. And through hard work, Hurst has put himself in position to be the lead player in a young tight ends group.
“Hayden is probably, actually, he’s definitely the hardest worker on this team,” Orth said. “He has been in the weight room every single day. He’s not just lifting weights; he’s working on flexibility. He’s stretching out. He’s catching balls from the jugs machine.”
Hurst spent time last season playing wide receiver after opening the year as a tight end, but Washington has seen the the Jacksonville, Fla., native come a long way in his ability to block and play physically on the line of scrimmage.
“The biggest thing is they’ve gotta understand the scheme and the concept and what we are trying to get done,” Washington said “It’s never going to be perfect. I tell them when we watch film, I can’t draw every line that is going to happen. If you understand where we are trying to run and what we are trying to do, you can make a great battlefield decision. I think he’s at the point where he’s making those decisions.”
While Washington is coaching a young room of players — all the tight ends are sophomores or younger — Hurst does present a different maturity. After graduating from Bolles High, Hurst played two years of minor league baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization before hanging up those spikes in favor of football cleats before the 2015 season.
It’s not the first time Washington has coached a player with that background, so he knows there’s a higher element of focus that can come with the added maturity.
“They’ve been around it and seen all this stuff before,” Washington said. “He played minor league baseball for (two) years, so he’s been out there to see things. Now, he’s focusing on what he wants to be and what he wants to do. Because of that, you get a guy that is a little bit more mature than that 18-year-old.”
Between that maturity, the improved blocking and the natural ability to get downfield that he showed during South Carolina’s three open practices this week, Hurst looks ready to break out in 2016.
“He’s doing everything it takes to play and that’s why he’s the No. 1 guy right now,” Orth said.
Mike Wilson covers South Carolina athletics for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on the Gamecocks.