Torii Hunter Jr.’s appearance in front of the media last week at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex was notable for two reasons:
1.) He wasn’t immediately asked about the femur bone he broke at New Year’s, 2013.
2.) He likewise wasn’t asked if his torn groin from August Camp 2014 still hampered his efforts.
Like the rest of his Irish teammates, that doesn’t mean he feels 100 percent. Not with the dog days of August in full effect.
“You never really feel completely healthy in fall camp, but I’m pushing through it and fortunately having a pretty good camp,” said Hunter. “There’s so much to work on for myself and as a team to get better before Texas.”
At last, Hunter’s storyline is less about his comeback than his ability to execute the proper comeback route, because while Americans love a good rehabilitation story, they rarely make for anything more than pre-game news fodder during a football game.
Hunter played last season the final nine games of the 2014 season (7 receptions including a first down on 10 targets) and by spring ball 2015 he had long been full go, physically. But he failed to distinguish.
That’s since changed, as early camp viewings show a quicker, more difficult to cover Hunter.
“I don’t know when it happened,” said Hunter of his between-spring transformation from JAG (Just Another Guy) to notable performer. “Probably just being healthy, I guess. Confidence comes with that.”
NOT AS SIMPLE AS X, W, Z?
Hunter’s current slotting – no pun intended – is at the Z position, or slot, a role likewise manned by returning starter Amir Carlisle and hiccup-quick newcomer C.J. Sanders.
Unlike Sanders and Carlisle, Hunter has ample practice experience elsewhere.
“We’re going to try to give him even more work at “Z” and “W” because we like what we see,” said head coach Brian Kelly last October of Hunter, then the backup “X” receiver to Will Fuller. “We don’t necessarily want to take Will off the field to get (Hunter) on the field.”
Someone reliable has to come off the field, at least sporadically, to get Notre Dame’s bevy of pass catchers on it. But as current Irish utility man Matthias Farley once noted, “The more you know, the more they’ll ask you to do.”
“The coaches have challenged me to master the offense so I can move to different spots,” said Hunter. “I've been working a lot to understand different routes. Looking at Amir for the slot and Will to the field (X), because they've played it a lot.
“I feel real comfortable in the slot. I'll occasionally go back to X to make sure I know what I’m doing if they plug me in. But I really feel comfortable in the slot.”
That’s largely because the position affords Hunter the advantage defensive backs admittedly dread.
“Oh yeah, it's 100 percent the hardest position to cover,” said Hunter of the slot receiver matchup for defensive backs. “The nickel (defender) has to play off pre-snap, and then defend a guy that has a three-yard head start with plenty of room to make a move in either direction.”
As Cole Luke noted of his brief time chasing slots as the Irish Nickel in 2013: “It’s a two-way go. You don’t have sideline help.”
Hunter’s calendar year journey from “is he injury-prone?” to “is he yet another weapon?” shouldn’t surprise Irish fans. Prior to his early camp 2014 injury – a severely torn groin muscle – Hunter had displayed enough playmaking prowess to elicit the following praise from Kelly: “He’s got sure hands, great acceleration and he’s strong. He’s got a strong base. He’s gonna be a really good player. We’ve just gotta get him out there and get him going."
That time has come.
“I feel so much more mature. Coach (Mike) Denbrock does a good job with the receivers harping on becoming a better man, teammate, and leader,” said Hunter. “Our coaches put us through the (military style) program for different aspects of leadership. I think I've already become a better leader, watching film, being more vocal trying to bring guys along this camp.
“It feels 10 times different because when we install things I kind of know it. It's not learning something new each time; it's perfecting it.
It’s no longer new to Hunter, but his on field impact could be to opposing defenses this fall.