Jeep Hunter: It was meant to be

Of all the happy faces at Williams-Brice Stadium Wednesday, there was probably none happier than the one belonging to Johnson "Jeep" Hunter. Hunter officially joined the Carolina coaching staff earlier this week as tight ends coach and assistant special teams coordinator. Hunter is back in football after a year on the sidelines, and he could not be any happier.

"It's just a total blessing that it worked out the way it did," he said Wednesday. "It's by the grace of God that I'm here. I just believe it was meant to be."

Hunter replaces Ray Rychleski, who left the Gamecocks after one season to join the Indianapolis Colts as special teams coordinator. From 2003-2005, Hunter was running backs coach at Memphis under Tommy West (with whom he also worked at Clemson), where he coached DeAngelo Williams. Williams was the nation's leading rusher in 2005, an All-American, and first round draft pick. For the next two years, Hunter coached tight ends at Georgia Tech. When head coach Chan Gaily was fired following the 2007 season, Hunter found himself without a job and out of football.

"I was spending a lot of time with my family, watching a lot of football," Hunter recalled. "In this business you spend a lot of time with football, so one of the things I got to do was spend some time with my family. I did a lot of soul searching, and just hanging out for the most part."

After being fired, some coaches prefer to take a year off before getting back in the grind. Hunter is not among them. He tried to find another position before last season, but circumstance kept him home with his wife Susan, and daughter Sophia and son Joshua.

"It just happened that way. I was blessed that I was under contract for about six months there" after being let go, Hunter said. "I didn't intend it, it just happened that way."

When coaching positions at South Carolina came open, Hunter took notice. He described the interest between Steve Spurrier and himself as "mutual," and was a candidate to be the running backs coach (the position ultimately went to Jay Graham) before being hired to work with tight ends.

Hunter takes over a young, inexperienced group. Jared Cook declared early for the NFL Draft, but rising junior Weslye Saunders seems poised to break out. After Saunders, there is almost no playing experience on the roster.

"We've got some young talent there," Hunter said. "Guys just need to progress day by day, week by week, and month by month. We're just going to continue to work at it. You have to constantly improve every day and work in the right direction as far as getting to that championship caliber."

Hunter is one of six new assistants on the Gamecock coaching staff. Along with offensive line coach Eric Wolford, quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus, and running backs coach Jay Graham, Hunter is charged with trying to ignite an offense that frequently stalled last season. Trying to mesh all the new personalities could be difficult, especially with an established offensive mastermind Spurrier calling the shots. Hunter is optimistic that there will not be any conflict in the coaches' meetings.

"I think that we'll have some new ideas, but the biggest thing is we'll have some new attitude, new beliefs," he said. "We're going to be fine. Everybody's excited about being here and winning football games. Everybody's going to be headed in the right direction. Some things will change and some things will stay the same, but the things that are changing are moving in the right direction."

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