Notre Dame football: A healthy Hunter in the WR hunt
SOUTH BEND -- That Torii Hunter Jr. professes to have no regrets about putting baseball in mothballs for another spring — or longer — speaks to just how much his love for football has grown, and more importantly, how much football has come to love him back.
The Notre Dame freshman wide receiver/center fielder won’t be a part of 25th-ranked ND’s upcoming New Era Pinstripe Bowl matchup with Rutgers, Dec. 28 in New York, but he is very much part of the Irish bowl prep. And there, largely behind closed doors and way out of the spotlight, is where Hunter’s football stock is soaring.
“He hasn’t caught a pass., hasn’t caught a touchdown (in an actual game),” Irish head football coach Brian Kelly offered, “but you’re going to be talking about him. He’s a pretty good player.”
Hunter did pick up a piece of hardware last Friday night at ND’s annual awards show, but one you’d more typically associate with someone who gets pulled into those overdone Rudy parallels — Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year.
The 6-foot, 178-pounder from Prosper, Texas, spent only a half season on the Irish scout team, just as quarterback Everett Golson did when he won that award in 2011, and increased the wow factor in each succeeding week.
“You see him make plays. You see him beat one-on-one matchups,” outgoing senior wide receiver and 2013 team MVP TJ Jones said of Hunter. “You see him make contested catches. He’s making plays and showing his ability and showing that next year he’s the guy to watch.”
Hunter could have been a guy to watch this season in a wide receiver rotation flush with freshmen, had it not been for a broken femur in his left leg that took four months longer than expected to heal. Hunter suffered the injury Jan. 1 in San Antonio, Texas, in preparation for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a high school all star game of elite prospects.
The original prognosis had him expecting to be full throttle with offseason football activities when he arrived on campus as a freshman in June, about the time his father’s team, the Detroit Tigers, was selecting him in the 36th round of the Major League Baseball draft.
But the prognosis changed for the worse in May.
“It was healing on the inside of the bone,” Hunter said, “but on the outside of the bone you could still see through it and it wasn’t healing at all. So that kind of halted everything as far as my comeback. I had to get another surgery in July so that the bone would start coming back together, compacting. That really kind of slowed everything down for me.”
His first week with the scout team came in the days leading up to the 37-34 victory over Arizona State Oct. 5 in Arlington, Texas. But he was limited initially in terms of contact.
“I was nervous the first couple of weeks, because I hadn’t been on the field for nine months.” Hunter said. “As the season progressed, they started putting me in more contact drills, more hitting drills, being able to jump for balls, doing one-on-ones. I’m starting to gain more confidence back.”
But he’s still not even 100 percent physically.
“I’m sure there’s some strengthening that I missed out on,” said Hunter, who atrophied down to 170 pounds during his recovery. “I don’t know that I’m quite there, but I’m getting there.”
And come spring he could be rising on the depth chart faster than the three impressive freshman wide receivers who played for the Irish this season — Corey Robinson, Will Fuller and James Onwualu.
“That was definitely the hardest part, seeing all of them out there playing when you’re sitting and watching your season go by,” Hunter said. “It was definitely tough at the beginning of the season, but you find your role on the team, and my role is scout team offense, to give the defense the best look possible. I just took it and ran with it.”
Torii Hunter Sr., an outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, has said publicly that he hopes his son will choose baseball after college for the long term because of the longevity on the professional level. But he has emphasized the decision will be all Torii Jr.’s.
Right now, it doesn’t sound like the younger Hunter even has baseball on his mind.
“Maybe I’ll pick it up later,” he said. “I don’t really know. But this year I’m going to really focus on football and get ready for next season.”