Mo Hurst is a blur.
As he gets into his stance, he coils up 292 pounds of energy. With his eyes trained on the football, he itches to unleash it. Hurst then catapults himself across the line of scrimmage and, quite frequently, straight into the opponent’s backfield. His lightning-quick first step is a huge reason why Pro Football Focus considers Hurst the top defensive prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft. His ability to get penetration so quickly often sabotages the offense’s play call before they can execute even their most basic assignments.
“It’s something I’ve developed since I was a little kid. I’d always try to be the first one off the ball since I started playing football, trying to beat the offensive linemen before they get out of their stance,” Hurst told STACK. “I think it’s just years of doing it and trying it—I don’t think it’s really something you can teach.”
Repetition is the mother of all learning, but Hurst’s upbringing also featured another practice that helped him earn quick feet—tap dancing. “My mom and aunt just decided to sign me and my cousins up for tap dancing, so that was something we did at a young age. Anywhere between 3rd and 6th grade, were were in tap dancing class—the only guys in there. It was an interesting and unique experience for me, but I remember it really being a positive one. I think it definitely helped (my football game)—working on footwork isn’t something people work on really young. So getting used to being a technician with your feet and your body in certain angles and ways, I think that really helped me,” Hurst says.
Hey, Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann swore ballet dancing made him a better receiver—is it so far-fetched to think tap dancing could build a better defensive lineman? Hurst’s diverse upbringing—he also played soccer, baseball and basketball in addition to football—helped him build the explosive athleticism which more than makes up for him being on the smaller side for a prototypical NFL defensive tackle. But while he tried his hand at many different activities, nothing lit a fire in him like football.
“I started playing organized football when I was 7. But before that, I used to always go to my cousins’ practices and just run around be around the game even though I couldn’t play or throw pads on. That was tough for me as a little kid, because I just wanted to play—from the moment I could walk, (I just wanted to play),” Hurst says.
Hurst was a standout from an early age, but he quickly learned simply playing the game wouldn’t be enough to take him where he wanted to be. When he arrived at Xaverian Brothers High School (Westwood, Massachusetts), Hurst dove head-on into the school’s strength and conditioning program.
“I started hitting the weight room my freshman year of high school. We had a great strength coach, Al Fornaro, who really pushed us to work out and lift a lot in the weight room. We just had a great program, and our high school was really good with making sure we were lifting weights and working out and running,” Hurst says.
Hurst developed an affinity for pumping iron almost from the moment he first entered the weight room. The school’s weight room would open around 6 a.m. on weekdays, and Hurst tried to ensure as many of his teammates to show up as possible. “We did a 6 a.m. ‘Breakfast Club.’ That would just be an early morning lift before classes and everything, and I’d always try to get a lot of guys there from our team to get a group lift,” Hurst says.
On the field, the first thing the coaches at Xaverian Brothers noticed about Hurst was how fast he fired off the ball. It would’ve been a quick first step for a man 75 pounds lighter, but for Hurst, it was almost supernatural. That helped him get on the field as a freshman, and his career only ascended from there.
It wasn’t just Hurst’s first step that was abnormally fast for his size—every movement he made seemed at odds with his size. When none of Xaverian’s quarterbacks could make it to a 7-on-7 camp, the coaches plugged in Hurst at QB. He threw four touchdown passes in one game and made an interception at safety in another. “I think people underestimate the athleticism he possesses. He’s a very good athlete. He’s not just a big kid that’s aggressive,” Charlie Stevenson, Hurst’s head coach at Xaverian Brothers, told the Boston Globe.
By the time he was a junior, Hurst was taking handoffs as a 275-pound running back in addition to his work on the defensive line. One game, he took a simple power run 75 yards through the heart of the defense for six. Skip to the :20 second mark to see that remarkable play:
“We had a package called Buffalo. It was me and my friend Hunter, who was another big running back, then another fullback who went to West Point to play offensive line. So it was three really big guys. It was lead right, and my coach wasn’t expecting it to really go very far. But then he saw me burst out of the pack,” Hurst recalls with a smile. “It was just supposed to be a couple-yard gain, but it ended up being a 70-something-yard touchdown. That was a fun play for me and I think it definitely helped me get recruited to a lot more schools.”
Hurst’s stat line from his junior season—61 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks and four forced fumbles—would’ve been enough to attract D1 suitors. But combining that production with his jaw-dropping athleticism is what really attracted the big boys of college football. But as Hurst’s exposure increased, he saw more mentions of him being “undersized.” He was by no means a small kid, but he wasn’t quite as giant as your typical highly touted defensive tackle. At one point, Hurst convinced himself he needed to be 300 pounds, simply because many dominant college defensive tackles played at or above that weight. It didn’t take long for Hurst to realize that carrying that much mass negated many of his biggest strengths—namely, his speed and athleticism.
“At one point, I think I got up to 300 pounds. But I wasn’t really healthy and wasn’t really feeling like myself at that weight. I just got there because everyone else says a defensive tackle needs to be that weight. But I think in high school, you just have to focus on being as athletic as you can, as mobile as you can, as fast as you can, as strong as you can,” Hurst says. “(I’d tell current high school players) not to stress about your weight and the weight of college athletes. I think that’s something I kinda struggled with.” Hurst quickly realized his mistake and slimmed back down, but you will see his high school weight listed anywhere between 275 and 300 pounds on recruiting services.
While Hurst might’ve thought his size was an issue, many powerhouse college programs did not. He earned offers from schools like Ohio State, Michigan State, Virginia and Nebraska. But Michigan, with their strong academics and excellent football tradition, had everything Hurst was looking for in a program. When Hurst hit the practice field in Ann Arbor as a true freshman, he faced a monumental challenge. As a member of the scout team, he lined up opposite of Taylor Lewan almost every single day. At that point, Lewan was a 6-foot-7, 315-pound All-American left tackle with a reputation for nasty, physical play. “My freshman year, I was on the scout team, and he would just beat the crap out of me,” Hurst says. “It just made me a better player and pushed me to try to get bigger and faster and stronger so that I would be able to do the same thing.”
After redshirting his freshman year, Hurst appeared in seven games the next season, totaling three tackles, one tackle for loss and a blocked extra point. He was also an Academic All-Big Ten honoree—the first of four times that he’d earn the honor during his five-year career at Michigan. While Hurst moved well from the moment he arrived at Michigan, he needed to increase his play strength, muscle mass and conditioning if he wanted to unlock his full potential. “(When I) went in, the only thing I could really do was move well. I ran pretty well. But I struggled a bit with the transition to a hard college lift and the conditioning and all the stuff that came with it,” Hurst says. “I think I’ve come extremely far…I keep feeling like I get bigger and stronger as the years go on.”
As a redshirt sophomore, Hurst totaled 35 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks in limited snaps. As a redshirt junior, he ranked as one of the most productive interior defensive linemen in the country. However, his total snap count was once again relatively low, which kept him from posting gaudy numbers. Michigan simply had too many talented defensive linemen on the roster for Hurst to hog all the snaps. In 2016, he was sharing time with guys like Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow, all of whom now play in the NFL, as well as future NFL talents Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich.
While Hurst could’ve been a selection in last year’s NFL Draft, he elected to stay in Ann Arbor for his redshirt senior season. He knew that the departure of several teammates opened up more playing time for himself, and he was eager to prove what he could do with a bigger workload. In preparation of that, Hurst attacked the weight room and improved his strength while also devouring hundreds of hours of film. He specifically likes to study how undersized defensive tackles like Aaron Donald and Gerald McCoy consistently win against bigger opponents. “I picked up a lot from (Aaron Donald). The way he uses his quickness and speed to beat offensive linemen, there’s a lot of things (I can) try to emulate,” Hurst says.
By the time Hurst took the field in 2017, he’d gained about 15 pounds of muscle since he first arrived at Michigan. That increased strength was evident in his play, and he was now capable of beating blocks with both quickness and power. That wasn’t the case early in his college career. “At a young age, if you could glob onto him, the older guys were just stronger than him at the time. But now, credit to him and the strength staff, that’s not the case. When bigger guys still try to swallow him up, he has the overall strength to bull-rush and get through it,” former UM center Jack Miller told the Detroit Free Press in the middle of Hurst’s dominant 2017 campaign.
Hurst totaled 59 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last season en route to AP first-team All-American honors. His 96.5 grade from Pro Football Focus is the highest single-season grade for any interior defender since the service began grading college player’s in 2014. “I think everything really slowed down (for me this season). I think it started a little bit last season, but this year, I just felt really comfortable and had a great understanding of what my responsibilities were and what our defense was about and what offense were trying to do,” Hurst says. “I just felt stronger and faster than a lot of people. I felt like I put all the pieces together.”
While Hurst had a scary moment at the NFL Combine when he was prevented from participating after doctors discovered an irregular electrocardiogram, he has since been cleared by a cardiologist to resume playing football and was not asked to return to Indianapolis for medical rechecks (which is typically a good sign). Medical staff at Michigan discovered a similar issue with Hurst his freshman year, but he was cleared after some additional testing and went on to have a great career. At Michigan’s pro day, Hurst clocked a 4.97 40-Yard Dash and a 31-inch Vertical Jump—quite impressive for a 291-pound defensive tackle.
Throughout Hurst’s amateur football career, he’s had one simple goal—be the best player on the field. Now that he’s set to star in the NFL, that goal will remain the same. “I just wanted to be the best player on the field. That was my mindset in high school and college,” Hurst says. “Working hard in the offseason and making sure that every single rep counts and every little extra thing you do helps lead to (accomplishing that goal), so that’s always my mindset.”
Photo Credit: Lon Horwedel/Icon Sportswire, Joe Robbins/Getty Images