Torii Hunter Jr. didn’t need a talk with Brian Kelly. The junior slot receiver knew what was coming after Will Fuller opened this season ablaze by torching defensive backs on a weekly basis.
Hunter knew at some point that cornerbacks and safeties would conspire against Fuller with double coverage, which meant the son of the 19-year Major Leaguer of the same name would get his shot. It came last Saturday night at Clemson and Hunter caught it, save one drop along the Tigers sideline.
“I had a couple opportunities and I’m still mad that I had that drop,” Hunter said. “I took advantage of most of them. There’s a lot of things we could have done better, me included. Everybody goes out there and just expects the ball to be thrown to them every play.”
Hunter finished with five catches, 52 catches and a potentially game-tying touchdown, obscured by the failed two-point conversion that followed. That more than doubled Hunter’s season stats, now at nine catches for 109 yards and one score.
He’s been targeted 13 times this season and produced eight first downs, which includes some work in the ground game.
Kelly has hyped Hunter since August and said the lack of catches had more to do with the rest of the offense clicking than the junior’s practice play. Until opponents took away Fuller and CJ Prosise on the ground, there wasn’t much work for slot receivers. But Clemson pulled that off. Fuller caught just two passes for 37 yards. Prosise rushed for just 50 yards, although he had 100 yards receiving.
Kelly doesn’t care where the alternative production comes from. He just knows Hunter can provide it.
“Honestly, I don't think it's been just the last couple of weeks. It's been all preseason camp,” Kelly said. “I think he's done the things necessary for him to be a feature player within our offense. I think it's just been a matter of getting his chance and his opportunities.”
“I think it's just getting his opportunities, and when he gets them, making the best of them. He clearly at that position had many more opportunities based on the way coverages were being dictated (at Clemson).”
Kelly said Hunter is the only receiver who can float among the W, X and Z positions. Fuller starts at the X, backed up by Equanimeous St. Brown. Chris Brown starts at the W, backed up by Corey Robinson. Hunter rotates with Amir Carlisle at the Z, which is the slot.
“The route concepts and the passing game concepts come to him very easily,” Kelly said. “Some guys don’t know how the other pieces fit together. He can kind of look at the picture and go, ‘Well, I know the Z does this so the X must have to be the curl on this play.’ He just has a natural way of being able to put the pieces a lot easier.”
That included the one-yard touchdown with seven seconds remaining last week when Hunter worked a pick play with Fuller against man coverage.
It’s proof of Hunter’s development that he was on the field at all, getting the opportunity for a career highlight, one potentially lost in the loss.
“It felt like (the ball) was in the air forever,” Hunter said. “I knew I had to catch it. I made sure I put every part of my body on that ball just to make sure I caught it. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough.”