Striding downfield, Maurice Hurst felt nothing but the cool December air at his back, as he cradled the first interception of his career with his eyes set on the North End Zone of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
Hurst's near pick-six against the Tennessee Titans last season was the icing on an impressive sophomore season, in which the former fifth-round pick appeared to be putting all the elements of his game together, despite starting in fewer games.
Entering the third year of his career, expectations are mounting for Hurst and his fellow 2018 Draft classmate Arden Key, but the coaching staff believes with health and talented veterans around them, the duo are equipped to turn a corner.
"The one thing with Arden and Maurice is, they came in here and they didn't really have anybody to look at from a veteran's perspective to say, 'Hey, this is how you are supposed to do it. This is how you're supposed to prepare. This is the technique,'" defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said Thursday. "And so, those guys got thrown into the fire right away without having the ability of somebody in front of them like Maliek [Collins] to show them the way."
The Raiders selected Hurst and Key during the 2018 NFL Draft to make them difference-makers for the team in crucial situations; however, they've been unable to find a groove because of inconsistency.
Their rookie season, Key played 62 percent of the defensive snaps, while Hurst played 61 percent. In Year Two, Hurst's snap percentage dwindled by 11 percent, playing in half of the defense's snaps all season, and the injury-plagued Key failed to suit up in more than half the team's games due to a nagging foot injury.
After adding weight last offseason, Key tried to adjust to his new size but became sidelined early in the year. Rejuvenated, Guenther believes Hurst and Key are where they need to be physically and mentally to thrive in 2020.
"I just think he's got his weight where he needs to have it," he said. "He's a lot quicker. He wasn't playing bad before he got hurt last year. He just got hurt early in the season. So, I just think he came in, he understands this is his third year and he's not satisfied with what he's done so far. I'm glad he's got a chip on his shoulder and we're looking for big things from him. So, hopefully, he is going to have a big year this year."
"He's in his third year and he's excited to come back," he added. "He's in good shape. He's done some good things here for us, and again, he's picking the ear of Maliek, so having him around to show him how it's really done."
All offseason, we've heard about how much defensive line coach Rod Marinelli is going to mold the Raiders' young d-line and there's reason to believe Hurst and Key will benefit the most. The duo is readjusting to their third coach in three years, but Marinelli is the cream of the crop. For 47 years, Marinelli has been grooming some of the best defensive linemen to play the game and he recognizes the talent in Hurst and Key.
"I've really enjoyed working with them a lot," he said after practice Thursday. "They got good talent, they got good movement and just keep getting them locked in and the consistency of how we do things every second of every day. Consistency. When you get to consistency, you start building mental toughness. So, that's the thing I'm looking for. I think they got the skill, the work to improve our skills. So far, so good, but I believe in them and they're working hard."
For the first time in years, the Raiders have loaded depth at nearly every position defensively, so Hurst and Key won't be asked to step outside their realm of responsibility in 2020, allowing them to hone in on what they do best.
General Manager Mike Mayock and Head Coach Jon Gruden are demanding a lot from them this season, but according to their defensive coaches, we could see a breakout.
View photos from another day of practice at Intermountain Healthcare Performance Center during 2020 Training Camp.