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For James Hurst and John Urschel, Experience Is in Their Favor


It was the 2014 wild-card playoffs in Pittsburgh, and two rookies were starting on the offensive line.

James Hurst lined up at left tackle, becoming the first undrafted rookie in NFL history to ever start a playoff game at that ever-challenging position. John Urschel started at right guard with Marshal Yanda pushed out to right tackle.

Talk about trial by fire.

The Ravens won that playoff game, and Hurst and Urschel were back out there the next week for a second playoff game against the New England Patriots.

Both players have been offensive line fill-ins over their first three years. And now both are legitimate contenders to take over starting roles this season. And they can lean on that experience as a major factor in their favor.

"It helps," Urschel said of experience. "I've been around the block, seen a lot of things."

The Ravens' competition at center is between Urschel, Ryan Jensen and Matt Skura – and it's a tight one. Baltimore rotated the three players with the first-team offense throughout offseason practices.

Baltimore has expressed its desire to get bigger and more powerful up front, and by that measuring stick, Jensen wins. He's the biggest at 6-foot-4, 310 pounds, and has significantly trimmed down his body fat. Urschel has also gotten bigger, but he's not as large as Jensen.

When it comes to experience, however, Urschel has the upper hand. He has 15 starts over his career, including the two playoff games. Jensen has nine starts. An undrafted rookie last year, Skura spent the season on the practice squad.

"I've started a fair amount of NFL games. I've been a backup, active on gameday and thrown into games. It's an interesting feeling. Every year I'm a little bit older and a little bit more experienced. I think that serves me well," Urschel said.

"If I see something on the defense, and maybe we haven't talked about it in the meeting room, I have experience and instincts on what to do. I think if I'm very much on my own and need to make a quick decision, I can make the right one."

Urschel, who doubles as a Ph.D. mathematician at MIT over the offseason, was asked about what he needs to do to separate himself from his competition.

"If you're at center, you need to run the offensive line – being vocal, being consistent and being dependable," he said. "These are the important characteristics of a center."

There's another battle brewing at right tackle, although the Ravens seem to have more answers there than at center. Hurst took all of the snaps with the first-team offense with De'Ondre Wesley and Stephane Nembot trailing.

Wesley and Nembot are bigger and have a lot of raw talent, but neither has started a game. Wesley has been active for just seven contests (all in 2015) and neither he nor Nembot played at all last season. Nembot, an undrafted rookie hailing from Cameroon, Africa, had surgery and sat out his entire rookie year.

Hurst, meanwhile, has started 18 games, including the playoffs, over his three seasons. Almost all of that has been at left tackle, where he's faced some of the best pass rushers in the NFL – from Oakland's Khalil Mack, Pittsburgh's James Harrison, Arizona's Chandler Jones and more.

The former undrafted rookie has had some up-and-down performances, but a switch to right tackle helps. Hurst started at right tackle in Week 17 against the Cincinnati Bengals and had one of his best games. He's gotten bigger as well, and built off that this summer.

"Here is what I can tell you: He is very coachable. What you teach, you see [on tape]. He is very coachable, he is accountable, he tries to do it exactly like we ask him to do, and he is getting nice results," Offensive Line Coach Joe D'Alessandris said.

"It is good to see him put forth the effort he did in the offseason. He got bigger, he got stronger. He is moving quickly. He is an intelligent young man. You put those combinations together, and you have a good football player."

With that said, the Ravens could still make free-agent additions on the offensive line. Owner Steve Bisciotti called it a "work in progress" and said the team will continue to look for upgrades.

But, as of now, without contact allowed in Organized Team Activities or minicamp, the Ravens like what they've seen. Training camp will offer a better evaluation.

"James Hurst has had a very good camp," Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "He's going to be a consistent player. I'm comfortable with him."

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