Torii Hunter, Jr. enters his senior season at Notre Dame as the squad’s most experienced, productive, and versatile receiver. The last is a moniker to which he’s grown accustomed – the former pair, on the other hand, will likely require some getting used to.
“I understand we lost a lot of other guys,” said Hunter. “We lost a lot of catches (142 receptions, 2,210 yards, and 19 touchdowns departed South Bend this off-season in the form of Will Fuller, Chris Brown, and Amir Carlisle) so there’s definitely a change of mentality for me. And we have a lot of young guys – it’s about bringing them along to and trying to make their transition as easy as possible.”
Part of that is finding positional fits for the likes of junior Corey Holmes, sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown, massive redshirt-freshman Miles Boykin, and early enrollee freshman Kevin Stepherson.
“I was telling coach today, keep moving me around until you find a fit,” said Hunter. “I don’t really have a preference. Wherever they need me I’ll work to be the best at it.”
It might take a while.
“They have to find a rhythm out there a little bit with Equanimeous,” said head coach Brian Kelly of his team’s trio of competing quarterbacks and their new collection of targets. “Stepherson looked really good. Excellent ball catcher, he’s a guy that’s going to be able to play as a freshman. They’ve got to get in a rhythm with Boykin, C.J. Sanders a little bit more. But they’re so accurate, they put the ball on those guys and make it a lot easier transition.”
So too does Hunter’s versatility. After training at both the Z (slot) and X (field) spots as a sophomore, the springtime Irish outfielder settled in last season at the former – an easy decision for the staff considering All-American Will Fuller manned the X spot. Hunter is also versed in the W (boundary) position previously owned by Chris Brown and currently manned by Hunter’s fellow senior-to-be outside, Corey Robinson.
Hunter could play anywhere, including Robinson’s long-held W role.
“It'll depend on the development of our W position,” said Kelly. “You know, I think right now, we're feeling pretty good with EQ, Equanimeous, out at X position. We're going to use this spring to figure out where we want Corey Holmes to play. Corey Holmes's numbers were freakish – and we're not making this stuff up, but he ran 4.39 (40-yard dash). He had a 41-inch vertical.
“So we've got to figure out, is he an X? Is he a Z? Which if he is, can we move Torii into the W position with Corey Robinson? Because we really like the way Stepherson looks, and of course Miles Boykin. We feel like we've got a lot of flexibility there.
“Torii is going to be on the field starting for us somewhere,” Kelly continued, “but we've got to figure out some of these guys that don't have a home right now that are really, really talented and then kind of go from there.”
MAKING THE PIECES FIT
With players receiving spring evaluations at multiple positions, and after a brief media viewing period Wednesday morning, an initial spring rotation reasonably projects as follows:
W: Robinson, Boykin, Hunter
Z: Hunter, Sanders, Holmes
X: St. Brown, Holmes, Stepherson, Hunter
Joining the fray in August will be freshmen Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool – both of whom were more highly touted prep prospects than Stepherson, a rookie already lauded by Kelly.
But key to it all, both now and when the team touches down in Austin, Texas in September, is the late-blooming Hunter.
After a freshman season (and 2013 calendar year) lost to a broken femur, a 2014 season spent knocking off the rust but with the additional hurdle of a torn groin (August Camp), and the reality of a lack of opportunity behind breakout classmate Will Fuller, Hunter rose to the fore last fall, finishing with 28 receptions (just one drop) on 35 pass targets – and 20 of those grabs resulted in first downs.
Still part of the Irish baseball squad each spring, Hunter and Kelly long ago learned how to navigate the conflicts of spring football and regular season baseball. Hunter will continue to compete on both fields of play.
“Baseball is a game of failure; I wouldn’t say football is,” said Hunter with a chuckle, noting that in baseball, it’s considered good if in ‘three out of 10 (at bats) you’re a hero.’”
“Going to (football) practice today, I just felt comfortable. I don’t feel that panic, it makes life a lot easier when you know what’s going on. Coach really stressed (in the past) I should learn every position, all the concepts.
“It’s really paid off and it’s allowing me to move around. But it’s different than just playing slot, which I played last year, so I have some adjustments to make. I know what to do, but there are some differences in how you run the routes.”
There’ll be myriad differences in the machinations of the Irish passing game next season, too, including its new known quantity, Torii Hunter.