Jun 12, 2018; Owings Mills, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst (81) catches a pass during minicamp at the Under Armour Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

© Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Learning the game from his fellow tight ends, rookie Hayden Hurst finds his way in the NFL

Hayden Hurst discusses his first couple weeks of regular season play.

October 19, 2018 - 7:00 pm

By: Kyle J. Andrews

Ravens rookie tight end Hayden Hurst was expected to be a big part of the offense, especially considering that he was selected with the 25th pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. He would show some promise during the preseason, but was sidelined for the first five games of the season with a hairline fracture in his foot.

After returning to play against the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans after his recovery, Hurst has been slowly eased into his place in the offense. The biggest adjustment has been the game speed against starting-caliber NFL defenses versus the backups and practice squad players in the preseason.

"For me, it's just knocking the rust off," Hurst said on Thursday of his return to the field. "[It's that great veteran leadership, Maxx Williams chimes in]. That too, that always helps. Maxx and Nick [Boyle] do make things a lot easier for me. But for me it's just getting used to the game speed again. Sitting for five weeks and then coming right back into regular season games -- it's been a bit of a challenge, but I feel like I'm getting into the playbook and catching up."

Baltimore's offense has two veteran tight ends in Williams and Boyle who have been able to show Hurst and Mark Andrews the ropes. Each of the tight ends have different abilities, with Williams being able to go into the backfield or in-line being set at tight end. Boyle provides the ability to run block almost as well as an offensive lineman. Hurst and Andrews can line up wide or in the slot. The four tight ends have combined for 40 receptions for 410 receiving yards and one touchdown.

"To be honest, it's just a fun room to be a part of," Hurst said. "Like I said, Maxx and Nick are very helpful to me and Mark with the plays and stuff like that when we're in there with our three or four tight end sets. Like you said, we all bring something different to the table, but it's a fun group to be a part of. They've been really welcoming and when me and Mark have questions, Nick and Maxx are there to help us out."

The Ravens have one of their biggest matchups yet against the New Orleans Saints (4-1). In five games, teams have just rushed for a total of 357 yards. With an injury to left guard Alex Lewis and the shuffling of Baltimore’s offensive line, Hurst will have his hands full in run blocking the New Orleans.

"Really in the run game, they're physical," said Hurst of the Saints defense. "94 [Cam Jordan] up there, 57 [Alex Okafor] coming off the edge. Right now, they're the number one rush defense in the NFL, so we’re really gonna have to bring our feet and move these guys and try to get some forward momentum in the run game.”

Coming into the draft, Hurst had 100 catches, 1,281 receiving yards and three touchdowns in his three seasons with the South Carolina Gamecocks. Though his numbers may have not been as eye-popping as some of the other top tight ends entering the draft, Hurst had the athleticism -- posting a 4.67 40-yard dash, a 31.5-inch vertical jump and a 120-inch broad jump.

One of the few knocks -- if you could even call it that -- against Hurst coming into the draft was his blocking. Most college offenses split their tight ends out wide or place them in the slot. Due to this, many rookie tight ends come into the NFL as unpolished blockers. The South Carolina product has continued to work on his blocking since April and has especially picked the brains of his veteran teammates in the tight end room.

“It’s coming along,” Hurst said of his run blocking. “I try to take some pointers from Maxx and Nick. They’ve been doing it for a few years now. In my opinion, they’re two of the best to do it in the NFL. So, whenever they have an opinion -- anything -- when they have a rep, I try to sit back and watch those guys, but I feel like I’m coming along pretty well.”

Hurst has a deeper connection with Baltimore than the team’s other rookies [outside of Orlando Brown Jr.]. He is very good friends with Orioles outfielder D.J. Stewart, who was a teammate of Hurst on both the football and baseball teams of the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida.

Both players were offered a baseball scholarship to Florida State, with Stewart accepting it and Hurst deciding to forego college for the 2012 MLB Draft. Hurst would be drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 17th round, signing for a $400,000 signing bonus. He would play two seasons in the Pirates organization before he walked onto South Carolina to play football.

Stewart would go on to have a prolific career with Florida State’s baseball team, winning the ACC Player of the Year Award in 2014 and being named an All-American in the same season. He would then be drafted by the Orioles in the 2015 MLB Draft with the 25th overall pick and made his Major League debut on September 12 this year. Hurst was there in the next game to support his friend.

“It was pretty cool,” Hurst said. “Me and my mom went over and got to see -- I think it was the second game that he played in. We’ve been lifelong friends. “I’ve known D.J. since I was 10 [or] 12 years old. To see him live out his dream to get called up and he’s hopefully going to come up to a few games this year -- it’s been great, I couldn’t be happier for him and he’s a great guy.”

Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleAndrews1994