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South Carolina’s Hurst a Star With a Story

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Baseball to football, Hayden Hurst has made an absolutely seamless transition

The soon-to-be 24-year old was named one of four permanent team captains, the program's first sophomore ever to earn that distinction.

Expectations are on the rise at South Carolina and for good reason; in addition to the program entering year two of the Will Muschamp era, the Gamecocks have one of the nation's most talented young quarterbacks in Jake Bentley, a now-healthy star linebacker in Skai Moore and the SEC's top tight end in Hayden Hurst. The 6'5'', 253-pound product of The Bolles School in Jacksonville, is a remarkable athlete with a story even more unique.

A multi-sport prep star, Hurst was actually more highly-touted on the baseball diamond where he helped lead his high school team to a pair of state championships. He earned second-team All-American honors from Rawlings, also pitching in the Under Armour All-American Game. Hurst initially signed with Florida State to play baseball, ultimately turning professional after being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates. A pitcher who threw in the 90s, he played two years in their organization before ditching his glove for the gridiron.

The transition was a deliberate one. Hurst joined the South Carolina football team, through the help of former USC quarterback Perry Orth, in the summer of 2015 with no college experience, no scholarship and, quite frankly, no guarantees. Though he was hitting the reset button by switching sports, the grind of fighting for every opportunity was nothing new for Hurst. A workout, setup by a friend, turned into a serendipitous second chance. 

Hurst entered his first season as an absolute unknown on the depth chart, but his talent and work ethic proved true; Hurst played in each of the Gamecocks' 12 games, lining up at tight end and wide receiver, and made his first-career start at Florida. He finished year one with eight receptions, but, even more, a very real role in the South Carolina offense. Late involvement was a springboard forward for Hurst, who now stands as the best at his position leaguewide.

Momentum came early in 2016 as Hurst was awarded a scholarship in the spring. What happened next was a season for the history books. Hurst, this past fall, finished with 48 receptions for 616 yards, both new schools records for a tight end. He had at least five catches in five different games, topping 80 yards receiving on four separate occasions. In the Birmingham Bowl versus South Florida, Hurst caught a touchdown pass and hauled in a key two-point conversion. Most importantly, his influence went well beyond just the stat sheet. 

The soon-to-be 24-year old was named one of four permanent team captains, the program's first sophomore ever to earn that distinction, won a share of the team Strength and Conditioning Award and Tenacity Award, was nominated for the Burlsworth Trophy and was named to the SEC's Fall Academic Honor Roll. Hurst may have stepped off the mound, but, clearly, never lost his footing.  

This season, Hurst is a prominent name for a team on the rise. He is a respected locker room leader, a fixture on pre-season all-conference teams and is considered a top candidate for national honors. With Bentley under center and Hurst back along with Deebo Samuel, Bryan Edwards, K.C. Crosby and others, South Carolina is poised to have one of the best passing attacks in the league; Bentley threw for 390 yards and three scores in the Gamecocks' final outing last year.

While Hurst didn't make it to the major leagues, he's already made history in Columbia. Furthermore, Hurst is considered a top NFL prospect with his size and ability. A handful of dynamic athletes have played both sports professionally; Hurst will very likely continue his reverse-Tim Tebow, who plays his home games just four miles from where Hurst plays his, at football's highest level.  

Baseball to football, Hurst has made an absolutely seamless transition. Location and velocity used to mean everything to the former farmhand, yet, in some ways, time and place still do.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Matt Osborne and Kevin Thomas on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network and is the sports director for multiple ESPN Radio affiliates based throughout southeast Georgia. @BJBennettSports