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16 Mar 2018

Futures: Maurice Hurst

by Charles McDonald

One the most important traits for one-gap, penetrating defensive linemen is their ability to stay "in the triangle." Playing within the rules of the triangle will always keep defensive linemen gap-sound while making life easier for the linebackers and safeties in run support.

Among draft-eligible defensive linemen, no one owned their triangle on a regular basis more than Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. Hurst's future is a bit murky right now after he was diagnosed with a heart disorder at the NFL Combine, but when he was on the field he was fairly easily the best defensive tackle in this year's draft class, showing off advanced technical prowess and explosive athletic ability.

What makes Hurst such a great defensive tackle is that he creates explosive plays within the confines of the defensive scheme. He doesn't freelance or go rogue on his own adventures; he works within his triangle and disrupts offensive lines in structure.

The triangle forms between the two offensive linemen directly in front of the defensive lineman, and includes the defensive lineman himself. The offensive lineman directly in front of him is his read key, and the offensive lineman that has potential for a double-team is his pressure key.

The foundation of one-gap, penetrating defensive line play starts within that triangle. Once the ball is snapped, the first step is towards the read key; on the vast majority of plays, the read key is headed towards the ball. The pressure key blocking down will alert the defensive tackle of a potential double-team or scoop block from the backside.

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Hurst (73) doesn't make the tackle on this play, but he does take an explosive step towards his read key, diagnose where the ball is going, and throw the guard to the ground before pursuing the ballcarrier. Even though he doesn't get in on the tackle, the correct process is clearly there. If Penn State had decided to run to the B-gap that Hurst was occupying, the play would have ended shortly thereafter based on his position in relation to his read key. Hurst used these keys to make a handful of plays in the backfield throughout his tenure at Michigan.

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Hurst's reaction to the pull from his read key and the down block from his pressure key is outstanding here. As the guard in front of him pulls, Hurst follows him into the backfield while dodging the incoming down block. it's nearly impossible for collegiate offensive linemen to work back two gaps on their way to players with the first step, burst, and awareness that Hurst has. Defensive linemen who can shoot into the backfield and create disruption with a blend of athleticism and block recognition are rare qualities in the NFL.

Hurst really shines when the defense allows him to move his triangle post-snap with movement steps and slant assignments up front. He has impeccable technique on these plays; he shields his chest from potential blockers while simultaneously getting up the field for tackles for losses.

     

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The best penetrating 3-techniques are able to correctly adjust to their keys and protect their bodies as they get upfield, and that's exactly what Hurst does here. Once he slants from the B-gap to the A-gap, he's able to reset, get square to the line of scrimmage, and finish in the backfield for a big play. With the way defensive coordinators are taking advantage of athletic players in the trenches, Hurst should be a highly valued commodity assuming that his medicals clear him to come back (admittedly, a big if).

Hurst uses his explosive athletic ability and technical prowess to be a menace as a pass-rusher as well. This is where a big chunk of his value is going to come from, and he delivered for the Wolverines in his senior year.

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Michigan is executing a blitz that requires Hurst to move out of his initial gap and gives him a two-way go against the offensive guard. Since he has no pressure key in this situation, he can attempt either an inside or outside pass-rush move to get home to the quarterback. The guard leaves a ton of space on both sides of him, and Hurst makes him pay with a lethal swim back inside towards the quarterback. Defensive tackles with this kind of spatial awareness are really, really difficult players to find in the draft.

Hurst can also get home on less exotic pass-rush looks that Michigan sent this past season.

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On most pass-rushing twists, there's a smasher and a scraper. The smasher is supposed to take out the guard and the center, while the scraper loops around and gets a sack on the quarterback. In this situation, Hurst is the smasher; he's not supposed to make this sack. However, once the offensive linemen disperse a bit to take on the scraper looping back around, Hurst just keeps going and winds up on top of the quarterback. There are plenty of young defensive linemen who get so caught up in the idea and premise of being the smasher that they wind up unnecessarily running themselves out of opportunities for explosive plays in the backfield. This is a play by an experienced, nuanced defensive lineman.

If the discussion around Hurst strictly surrounded his talents on the field, he'd be a top-10 pick. Unfortunately, he's on a bit of a hiatus until more information on his heart condition from the combine gets uncovered. Regardless, he's the prototypical defensive lineman who is set up to thrive against offenses in the new age of the NFL. He's a rare commodity, and if he's healthy, he should be treated as such.

Posted by: Charles McDonald on 16 Mar 2018

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