Torii Hunter Jr. got some extra attention on Wednesday morning, sitting down with graduate assistant Maurice Crum to talk cornerback play. To make this position scramble work, the Irish staff has gone overtime with Hunter, hoping to fortify the secondary with new blood.
Crum has been a big part of that transition. Special assistant Bob Elliott has pitched in too. Same with defensive backs coach Todd Lyght. That’s what’s been required to make Hunter the first two-way player at Notre Dame since Tom Zbikowski did it on Senior Day eight years ago.
“I don’t know who his Mr. Miyagi is,” said cornerback Cole Luke. “He’s definitely had a smooth transition to defense. He understands the plays very well. We don’t have to take time out of practice to let him know his assignment or anything.”
Luke and Hunter and both students in the Mendoza College of Business, meaning they spend plenty of time together away from football. Luke has an appreciation for Hunter’s intellect beyond Brian Kelly’s description on Showtime this week when he called the slot receiver “smart as sh#$” as he shuffled between practice fields.
“He has great technique which is surprising,” Luke said. “I think it’s easier to come from corner to receiver than coming from receiver to DB. It’s definitely a hard transition. He’s handled it very well.”
Hunter said the transition started about a month ago. He played mostly man coverage against Pittsburgh, meaning he basically just chased around receivers. Understanding the nuances of Notre Dame’s defense is a bigger challenge, but the Irish need someone, anyone, to step up.
Notre Dame didn’t play a single snap of nickel defense against Clemson or USC, the personnel set shelved after injuries to corner Shaun Crawford (pre-season) and safety Drue Tranquill (Georgia Tech).
KeiVarae Russell was supposed to play nickel with Devin Butler filling in outside, but Butler has barely played this year after getting burned at Virginia. Sophomore Nick Watkins is also rooted to the bench.
Kelly said freshman cornerback Nick Coleman is the backup to Hunter at nickel.
“It's a position that for us we certainly can put (Coleman) in there,” Kelly said. “We think it's a lot for him, quite frankly. We'd rather have him focus on his technique and development outside at the cornerback position in case he needs to go in the game, and we don't want to put too much on his plate.”
Hunter called the transition “drinking water from a fire hydrant” last Saturday, but he’s managed to stomach it as the Irish hunt for a College Football Playoff spot.
This weekend against Wake Forest might be an ideal time to get more experience. The Demon Deacons average 36 passing attempts per game (No. 39 nationally) but are abysmal in efficiency. Wake has a negative touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10-to-14 and averages 6.4 yards per attempt (No. 100 nationally).
Only three other Power 5 programs have a worse touchdown-to-interception ratio (Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Maryland).
It all makes this week a chance to further renovate Notre Dame’s nickel defense with an athlete unique in both skills and smarts.
“He obviously has all the traits you want and all the ability to play any skill position on the field,” said safety Matthias Farley. “I think they’re doing a good job of managing the coverages that the does, the plays he runs, so he can get comfortable in certain instances.
“He’s very receptive also. He’s jumped in. When you do that, I think you can pick it up faster.”