ND A to Z: Torii Hunter Jr.

Hunter gives the Irish 4.43 speed and the versatility to play any of three wideout positions after getting his feet wet as a backup Z (slot) receiver.

A second-team 4A all-state pick in 2012 by the Associated Press, Hunter caught 71 passes for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior for Prosper (Texas) High School. He validated that selection by being named the MVP of The Opening’s 7-on-7 tournament.

Hunter, meanwhile, maintained his two-sport status by hitting .393 with six home runs, 27 RBI and 13 stolen bases as a senior season with the Eagles. The son of former MLB standout Torii Hunter Sr. was prepared to come to Notre Dame and give both sports a try.

But Hunter’s journey was put on hold when he suffered a broken leg while working out for the West squad at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio. It cost him his freshman season in both sports and delayed his return until early in the 2014 campaign when he caught seven passes for 63 yards and a touchdown.

It wasn’t until 2015 that a fully-healthy Hunter was able to show his true football skills. Working predominately at the slot position with Amir Carlisle, Hunter caught 28 passes for 363 yards and a pair of touchdowns as a red-shirt sophomore to rank fourth on the team in grabs. Of those 28 receptions, 21 went for first downs.

He emerged in the spring of ’16 as the most experienced of Notre Dame’s wideouts and the clear choice as the go-to receiver heading into his red-shirt junior season with eligibility remaining in 2017. He played a bit role on the baseball team for the second year in a row.

Hunter steps to the forefront and follows in the footsteps of Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert, TJ Jones and Will Fuller as the go-to receivers in the Brian Kelly era. (Note: Notre Dame’s leading receiver in the Kelly era has averaged 68.5 receptions per season.) Hunter builds upon a quality spring in which he clearly was Notre Dame’s most accomplished receiver.

Best-case scenario – and a realistic one at that – is that Hunter parlays a red-shirt junior season into a high draft choice in the spring of ’17, thus bypassing his final year of eligibility.

Alize Jones, Corey Robinson (depending upon his status), Corey Holmes and a host of young receivers help share the load, thus reducing Hunter’s numbers, which prompts him to return for a fifth year of eligibility. Hunter still increases his market value by showing his versatility and heads into ’17 as one of the upper-echelon receivers in the country.

Tony Smith preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman receiver with the Irish in 1988. He managed just two receptions for 26 yards in his first year of competition. Smith caught a modest 15 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns in 1990. (Note: He actually was tied for second on the team in receptions with 15 on a squad that averaged 250.3 yards rushing per game.)

Smith’s breakout season came in his red-shirt junior year when he led the Irish receiving corps with 42 catches for 789 yards (18.8 yards per reception) and four touchdowns. Hunter is on a very similar course.

Although Scout listed Hunter as a four-star prospect and the No. 41 receiver coming out of high school in 2013, he was not rated among the nation’s top 300 players. If Hunter has the kind of red-shirt junior season in ’16 that most expect, he’ll exceed his prep rating.

Hunter caught at least one pass in 12 of 13 games last season. The one in which he didn’t record a reception from scrimmage was the Virginia game, and he caught the two-point conversion pass (after Kizer-to-Fuller for 39 yards and the go-ahead touchdown) gave the Irish a seven-point victory. Hunter caught five passes for 62 yards against Temple, including a career-high 40-yarder. He scored on a 12-yard reception at Pittsburgh en route to a 21-3 halftime lead.

His most significant contribution, however, came against Clemson when he caught five passes for 52 yards in the rain, including a one-yard touchdown grab with seven seconds remaining to pull the Irish to within two points. Hunter played a significant role in Notre Dame overcoming a 21-3 second-half deficit.

“I’m not striving to be a certain position. I was telling coach, ‘Just keep moving me around until you find a fit for me.’ I played Z last season, but I don’t really have a preference. Wherever they need me, I’ll just work to be the best at it.”
-- Torii Hunter Jr.

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