Will Muschamp was the head coach at the University of Florida when Hayden Hurst graduated from The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla., but Muschamp never recruited Hurst. He’s happy now that he didn’t.
“I’m glad he’s here,” said Muschamp, who is now Hurst’s head coach at South Carolina.
Nobody recruited Hurst to play football in high school because baseball looked to be his future. He had a scholarship offer to play baseball at Florida State but turned that down to sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a 17th-round draft pick. After two seasons in the rookie Gulf Coast League, Hurst decided to give football a shot and walked on at South Carolina.
He didn’t show up in 2015 like a typical walk-on, linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams remembers.
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“When he walked in, you could see it. He’s physically impressive,” Allen-Williams said. “We knew he was a baseball guy. We just knew he was going to do something for our team.”
Hurst made an impact right away, but it was a small one. After starting as a tight end, he moved to wide receiver and finished the season with eight catches for 106 yards.
“When you see a walk-on, guys are not sure what to expect. Expectations are kind of low,” Hurst said. “I just tried to come in here and work hard. They saw in practice what I could do, and I probably impressed some people last year midway through.”
He has impressed more people this year. Hurst is the Gamecocks’ leading receiver, with 24 catches for 302 yards. He is 14th in the SEC in receiving yards with 60.4 per game, which is the second-highest total among conference tight ends.
When the 6-foot-5 Hurst learned he would move back to tight end under Muschamp’s coaching staff, he added nearly 20 pounds, going from 235 to 252 pounds.
“To see him pick up that much weight and maintain that much speed, it was just scary,” Allen-Williams said. “He’s just a dynamic athlete. Hayden is a big fast guy. He’s so big, that you really don’t get a chance to see his elusiveness, but if you let Hayden in the open field, he is very elusive.”
Hurst feels faster this season even with the added weight, he said.
“I feel like I’m in a lot better shape, lot stronger,” he said.
He feels more comfortable with his knowledge of the playbook this year, too, he said.
“Last year, I was just trying to get the play call and not mess up,” he said. “This year I already know the plays by heart, and I can read the defense and see where I need to get open for the quarterbacks.”
Muschamp noticed Hurst when he reviewed South Carolina’s game film shortly after being hired.
“In watching the film, you see his athleticism, but you don’t really get a feel for how big and strong a guy he is and what he can do for you in the position we are playing him, which is really perfect for his skill set,” Muschamp said. “He’s just going to get better because he hasn’t played a lot of football. He’s just continuing to rise.”
Hayden Hurst bio
Position: Tight end
Hometown: Jacksonville, Fla.
Major: Exercise Science
Former sport: Played for two seasons in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization in the rookie league, as a pitcher in 2013 and as a first baseman in 2014.
Key stats: Leads USC in receiving with 24 catches for 302 yards.
Who: USC (2-3, 1-2 SEC) vs. Georgia (3-2, 1-2)
When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 107.5 FM
Line: Georgia by 7 1/2