HOOVER, Ala. — Coach Will Muschamp's journey to South Carolina required stepping away from a four-year tenure at Florida that ended with a combined 10-13 record in his final two seasons.
As those two dramatic years played out, Hayden Hurst tried to reinvent himself as a first baseman and hitter in the Gulf Coast League about 170 miles south of Gainesville, buried deep in the minor league system of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Thank goodness for second chances.
For Hurst, who turned down a scholarship to pitch for Florida State out of high school in 2012, reinvention eventually came — as a tight end at South Carolina in 2015. He caught eight passes as a 22-year-old freshman after quitting baseball to walk on with the Gamecocks.
Then Muschamp arrived in Columbia, S.C., in 2016 for a fresh shot as an SEC head coach.
Hurst was voted a team captain for 2016 and caught 48 passes as Muschamp directed a youthful team predicted to finish last in the SEC East to a bowl game with a quarterback, Jake Bentley, who should have been a high school senior.
"Coach Muschamp has definitely raised the intensity level around Columbia," Hurst said at SEC media days Thursday. "I enjoy playing for a guy like that, though. It's been fun. I love playing for Coach Muschamp and the university. It's the best decision I've made in my 23 years."
Hurst said his baseball experience was humbling and gave him a mission to never be outworked during the new phase of his athletic career. Muschamp added that Hurst brings "an element of maturity" to the Gamecocks that is "invaluable."
"That, when it comes from your peers, it's a lot different than when it comes from the coach," Muschamp said. "That's why as a sophomore, second year on the team, first year starting at tight end, he's elected a permanent team captain. To me, it's all about the respect you have from your peers, and he's as respected a young man as there is on our football team."
Muschamp used his time in the main room at SEC media days to note that South Carolina will be young again in 2017. He expressed confidence in the offense led by Bentley, Hurst, receiver Deebo Samuel and a veteran offensive line.
"Defensively, a little different story as far as the known is concerned," Muschamp said. "We have a lot of unknowns. We've got some questions that need to be answered."
The SEC East is considered an open division, with the traditional powers of Georgia, Florida and Tennessee thought to be the top contenders. When will South Carolina be ready to contend for a division championship?
"Why not now?" Hurst said. "Coach tells us every day that we're never going to show up to any stadium in the country to lose a football game. He wants to win and he wants to win now."
Muschamp's second season at Florida was his best. The 2012 Gators went 11-1 in the regular season and earned a Sugar Bowl berth. Two tough seasons followed.
But just like experience is the best teacher for a freshman, head coaching experience cannot be replicated, Muschamp expressed. For him that has meant gaining comfort with the many off-the-field duties that collegiate head coaches must deal with, including recruiting, public relations and managing a team and a staff.
"There's a lot of things — hats that you wear — in the role," he said.
In an analogy that Hurst certainly can relate to, Muschamp explained that "the more at-bats you get, the better you're going to become at it."
Hurst, who is on the preseason watch list for the Mackey Award for the nation's best tight end, said he couldn't be happier with how football has worked out for him.
"It was two and a half years of torment and struggle," Hurst said of his baseball career. "I was just kind of frustrated at that point. When I made that phone call, it was just huge for me to take that step in my life. I never really would have imagined being here at SEC media days in 2014, but it's extremely humbling to be here."
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