"I think Hurst is our No. 1," Withers said.
The red-shirt junior followed in his father's SEC footsteps out of high school. Tim Hurst played alongside former Mississippi State head coach Sylvester Croom under Paul "Bear" Bryant at Alabama in the mid-1970s and that family relationship was pivotal in the younger Hurst's decision to enroll at Mississippi State in January 2008.
Hurst played in 12 games and started 10 for the Bulldogs as a freshman, pulling in two catches for 11 yards. Croom's dismissal and the hiring of Urban Meyer disciple Dan Mullen meant Hurst's preferred pro-style offense would be replaced by a version of the spread offense.
In order for the 6-foot-3, 260-pounder to fully utilize his skill set, he began looking at his options outside of Starkville, Miss. When his brother James committed to North Carolina on Apr. 22, 2009, Hurst decided to visit Chapel Hill seven weeks later to check out the campus.
That trip was all it took for the Tar Heels to secure two Hurst boys in less than two months.
NCAA transfer rules required Hurst to sit out the 2009 season, and he encountered a logjam at tight end last year with seniors Zack Pianalto, Ryan Taylor and Ed Barham fighting for playing time. He saw action in nine games and started the final game of the season against Duke, catching one pass for two yards.
And while his starting experience at Mississippi State has played a significant role in his development, Hurst is hesitant to place too much emphasis on what happened in Starkville in explaining his current positioning on the depth chart.
"It helped a lot in getting to know the speed of the game," Hurst said. "But when I got here, I took a little bit of a step back because I think the biggest thing about football is learning your teammates and learning how your team plays. So as much experience as I gained in my freshman year, I think my red-shirt year here helped a lot because I got to know the atmosphere and goals of the team."
Talk to Hurst long enough and you quickly realize that he's all about the team. He quickly downplayed the significance of Withers' statement labeling him as the No. 1 option at tight end.
"I really don't think of myself as the No. 1 because we rotate and we have so many different personnel packages," Hurst said. "Certain guys do certain things. The coaches really put us in a position to be successful, and so to me, it's just about the plays I get, doing the best I can, being assignment sound and playing football the way its supposed to be played."
Hurst said he knows that his fellow tight ends will see the field throughout the season, so his concern as the veteran of the group is in making sure that they know where to be and what to do when they enter the game. He's spent serious time this training helping true freshmen tight ends Eric Ebron and Jack Tabb learn the position, as well as helping red-shirt freshman Sean Fitzpatrick nail down the nuances that come along with the job.
"Sean's been here for a while, so you kind of know what he brings to the table," Hurst said. "He's been solid, he's been what you thought he was. I really didn't know what to think with Eric or Jack, but they're good. It's been a surprise how good they are and how quick they've picked up plays. Tight end is one of the more thinking positions on the team and so far they've done a pretty good job picking up the offense. The level of athleticism that they bring to the position is really going to help our team."
Hurst exudes a strong confidence behind a laidback appearance and talks candidly about his love for the game of football. He admits that Mullen's spread offense wasn't physical enough for his liking as he prefers an offense that can snap the ball and grind out five yards per carry.
It's an added bonus that he can line up beside his kid brother and deliver a family-style attack in the trenches.
"There's nothing better than when someone gets double-teamed by us and we can just run them off," Hurst said.
The brothers share an off-campus apartment in Chapel Hill, and the elder brother doesn't shy away from talking about the strength of their relationship.
"We were always really close, but I think we grew even closer in high school when he started playing varsity, because at that point, he was big, so you knew he could play," Hurst said. "That's when our relationship really started to grow. I would push him and he would push me to be as good as we can. That's something that's continued ever since then, and that carries over into every phase of your life. Knowing that somebody is there to make sure that you're doing the best that you can at everything that you do builds a friendship that is really important."
With training camp nearing its halfway point, Hurst is anxious for game prep and the learning opportunities that come along with facing various defenses on a week-to-week basis.
That's the cerebral side of Nelson Hurst. The football brute side has a slightly different opinion.
"Right now, I'm just looking forward to hitting somebody else," Hurst said, smiling.