WR Hunter eyes larger role with Irish heading into 2014

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — He can smile now at the notion of being an afterthought, because for the first time in a long while, it no longer feels permanent.

Now the glimpses of promise are longer and closer together for Notre Dame sophomore-to-be Torii Hunter Jr. The interviews that start and end with questions about his baseball-playing father — Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter Sr. — and dismiss his own identity are less frequent. The pain in his left leg from a January 2013 fractured femur, that wouldn’t go away for so long, no longer dominates his days.

Possibilities do. Gleaming, uplifting, trajectory-shifting possibilities.

Even if they only translated to a modest two catches for 14 yards Saturday in the 85th-annual Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium.

“He is absolutely, physically very gifted and right in the mix with all those guys in terms of what we think he can do potentially down the road,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator/receiver coach Mike Denbrock said of the 6-foot, 190-pound Hunter and his place in a seven-deep receiver corps that in June adds two more bodies — spring-semester academic casualty DaVaris Daniels and incoming freshman Corey Holmes.

“Like a lot of young guys, the more he sees things (and) the more he does things, the better he’s going to be,” Denbrock continued. “He’s not where we need him to be yet, but you can see so many positive things that are going to happen there, moving forward. Obviously, we’re trying to move the process forward as quickly as we can.”

For ND fifth-year head football coach Brian Kelly, the Blue-Gold Game has never been about presenting a finished product or really the culmination of anything more than the 15th spring practice. It’s always been more of an awkwardly placed snapshot of his vision for August training camp and a springboard to the summer, where periodically dramatic individual growth takes place.

Former Irish quarterback Tommy Rees is probably the best poster child for those type of summer transformations.

When the spring of 2010 concluded, the early-enrolled freshman Rees was decidedly the third QB option behind ACL-surgery comeback story Dayne Crist and walk-on Nate Montana. And Kelly couldn’t get Rees’ QB classmates, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa, on campus fast enough.

In fact, he brought them in two weeks earlier than the other summer-arriving freshmen, just to get a head start at rearranging a depth chart that figured to settle with Rees fifth. Instead Rees surged over the summer, challenged Montana in August and overtook him for No. 2 by October.

By the end of the 2010 season, Rees was starting. With Crist injured again, Rees went 4-0 as the stand-in, then passed Crist on the depth chart the following September.

Hunter is one of a handful of Irish players obscured in the Blue-Gold Game Saturday by the convoluted format, limited opportunity, injuries, and/or scheme and position tweaks, but who could break through in August.

Linebacker — yes linebacker — James Onwualu is another. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound sophomore-to-be played running back at national prep power Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, Minn., was recruited to play wide receiver and spent his freshman season at that position.

This spring he shifted to safety, then morphed into a linebacker, where he collected four tackles on Saturday.

“My head was spinning pretty fast at the beginning of spring ball,” Onwualu said of all the changes. “But now I’m starting to kind of settle in and see where I can go with this.

“It’s tough in some aspects, but then you think about it as: I believe in myself as being a fairly good athlete that can fit into a lot of different positions. So I take it as a compliment for the coaches to believe in me and my abilities. I truly believe they’re trying to find the perfect fit for me.”

Recovering senior-to-be Ben Councell — a drop linebacker in the old defensive scheme the last time he had a fully healthy ACL in his left knee — could be energized by new responsibilities on his plate when healthy.

Romeo Okwara and Joe Schmidt are two players ripe for summer ascendance for different reasons.

Okwara, now a 6-4, 258-pound wall of muscle at defensive end/rush linebacker, spent his first two seasons at ND as a Band-Aid. He migrated from cat linebacker to drop linebacker and even to nose guard to provide position insurance when a particular spot ran too thin of bodies.

The constant shifting tag-teamed with his own youth to encumber Okwara’s overall growth. The junior-to-be is 18 years old. He turns 20 two months and some change before his senior season commences. By comparison, former Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen turned 20 on the eve of the fourth game of his true freshman season.

“I think we found a role for Romeo,” Kelly said Saturday after Okwara amassed a team-high 3½ tackles for loss, “one that I think we feel a lot more comfortable where he is. He's got to do a good job of taking care of his body and keeping up the weight and doing those things.”

Schmidt found himself at middle linebacker this spring, and was perceived by many from the outside looking in as a place-holder for either recovering former starter Jarrett Grace (broken leg) or the defensive jewel of the 2014 recruiting class, Nyles Morgan.

No one, though, absorbed new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s new scheme faster or more thoroughly this spring than the 6-foot-230-pound former walk-on and zero-star recruit who turned down scholarship offers from Air Force and Cincinnati to attempt an unlikely climb at ND.

“Joe Schmidt is the leader on our defense,” Kelly said Saturday. “Right now he can't come off the field. His knowledge base in terms of getting people lined up and having them execute what we do defensively, he's absolutely integral to what we're doing.

“We'll obviously have to do a lot defensively. Joe is not 255 pounds, and if the game is a downhill, iso game, we're going to have to be cognizant of what his shortcomings are.”

Hunter’s biggest shortcoming was bad luck. He suffered a broken leg 15 months ago during a practice for a high school all-star game that figured to be a non-issue by the following summer when he first arrived at ND.

Instead, it lingered deep into fall, and Hunter ended up redshirting. In December, during ND’s bowl practices, Hunter made a splash. But then he started sinking again in March, when quarterback Everett Golson was reintegrated with an offense that itself underwent a transformation.

“It definitely helps knowing the coaches still believe in you,” Hunter said of his up-and-down existence, “even though you had a bad practice where you thought you should have made more plays, done better. But the fact they didn’t give up on you is definitely motivating and uplifting looking to the future.”

Film study, Hunter says, will be a large part of his immediate future in trying to elevate his standing on the depth chart. The last time the Prosper, Texas, product took to video with such a serious bent was when Notre Dame first started recruiting him.

“To be quite honest, I didn’t watch Notre Dame at all growing up,” said Hunter, whose brothers Darius (Blinn Community College) and Money (Arkansas State) are also college football players.

“After I got the offer, I started looking out for (Notre Dame) more, trying to find games to watch. I kind of had them in the back of my mind, because I knew the type of school they were with the tradition and education and things like that. My dad was in my ear about it. He’s like, ‘They used to be pretty good,’ and then I watched Rudy.”

Yes, the movie Rudy was Hunter’s film study that played a role in him eventually landing at Notre Dame.

“I didn’t know what it looked like,” he said of Notre Dame. “I didn’t know any of the traditions at the school. So I had to watch Rudy, and saw Touchdown Jesus and the Play Like a Champion sign, all that stuff.”

He still has designs of adding baseball into his own ND football narrative, but won’t push it. Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston’s ability to do both at Florida State at a high level, and former Irish receiver Golden Tate’s successful two-sport adventure are his templates of encouragement.

The strongest connection to the sport currently for the high school standout outfielder and 36th-round draft choice last June of the Detroit Tigers is going to see his father play. And even those opportunities no longer come easy.

Torii Sr. used to move the family to Minnesota in the summertime when he was playing for the Twins and the boys were little and didn’t have their own sports obligations. And Torii Jr., got to travel from city to city with the team.

“It was a great experience,” he said. “It kind of creates this drive in you to go out and be able to do those kind of things.”

The younger Hunter said he’ll see his first game in person this season when the Tigers host the Angels this weekend. In the interim, the younger Hunter said his dad sends him motivational texts every day.

“It’s definitely tough not playing (baseball) this spring,” he said. “But I’m here on a football scholarship, so I just kind of have to honor that and what the coaches want to do with me. I agreed to come out here this spring and just give it my all, so I could show the coaches that I’m serious about football.”

He hopes to show the rest of the college football world even more next fall.

Notre Dame wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. is finally healthy and ready to do more for the Irish in 2014. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)