Hayden Hurst

South Carolina's Hayden Hurst hauls in a pass against Louisiana Tech during fourth-quarter action on Sept. 23 in Columbia. The junior tight end is expected to have a solid future in the NFL whether he leaves USC after this year or next.

Travis Bell, SIDELINE CAROLINA

COLUMBIA -- Hayden Hurst has Perry Orth to thank in part for the success he had this year.

The baseball-pitcher-turned-SEC-tight-end was giving up baseball after a couple years in the minors and was looking for a school to pursue his football dreams. That’s when he remembered a former rival quarterback and reached out.

“It all started with Perry. He’s the one that kind of got the ball rolling and got me in contact with (Steve Spurrier) Jr., who gave me the opportunity to walk-on. I thank him every day,” Hurst said.

“He went to a high school across the river from me. We grew up competing against each other. … We got in contact with him and he helped me out a lot.”

And now, three years after arriving on campus, Hurst has another decision to make about his future and if he’ll depart early for the NFL.

The junior will participate in Saturday’s Senior Day festivities against Wofford, one of 12 to go through the ceremony and the only non-senior. It was something that was brought up by head coach Will Muschamp, but Hurst still hasn’t come to a full decision about his future.

“I’ve thought about it a little bit,” he said. “It’s something me, my dad and my mom and my family will talk about and get with Coach Muschamp. I’ll have a decision when the season’s over.”

Walter Football lists Hurst as the No. 1 overall tight end for next April’s NFL draft and he’s projected to go somewhere in the first two rounds if he were to leave school early.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder was also named one of eight semifinalists for the Mackey Award given annually to the best tight end in the country. It’s something he really never dreamed of when he arrived in Columbia.

“When I stepped foot on campus, I figured I could come and compete,” he said. “Being one of eight tight ends to be top in the country is humbling.”

Hurst, who turned 24 in August, has done about everything he can do at the collegiate level.

He’s first in school history with 91 career receptions by a tight end and is 135 yards away from breaking Danny Smith’s record of 1,336 career yards by a tight end. He also owns single-season records in reception for a tight end (48) and yards by a tight end (616).

But his intangible qualities are what makes him special, his head coach said.

“He's everything you want in a student-athlete,” Muschamp said. “For what he represents and what more of what he does for our team. He's our shield on our punt team. He contributes in a lot of ways, other than just playing really good tight end for us.”

He’s second on the team with 35 receptions for 480 yards and has three touchdowns. He’s continuously bailed out Jake Bentley and the offense, forcing a fumble on a near pick-six Saturday while also hauling in a one-handed grab on a desperation heave from Bentley.

Through all his eye-popping plays this season, a few different nicknames have surfaced from different areas. SEC Network announcers during the Missouri game dubbed him “Big Red” and a video put out by the football team last week christened him Garnet Thor.

“I’m not a big fan of Big Red. No one’s really called me that before,” Hurst said. “Garnet Thor is different; it’s new. I saw a guy with a T-shirt during the Gamecock Walk and thought that was pretty cool. But a lot of my buddies call me Big H.”

Hurst has come a long way since hurling baseballs on backfields in Florida during spring training three years ago.

His dream has always been to play professional sports, and he’ll be an NFL tight end regardless of when he opts to leave school.

So, for a guy who always dreamed of played football or baseball professionally, he’ll get a chance to do both.

“I started off playing football as a kid and everybody told me baseball was the answer,” he said. “Now it’s football. It’s just weird.”

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