A healthy Torii Hunter Jr. evolves for Notre Dame
It’s been a while since Torii Hunter Jr. felt like Torii Hunter Jr., since he resembled the smooth-cutting, fast-breaking receiver that accepted a scholarship offer to Notre Dame back in 2012.
The kid who arrived in South Bend two years ago already wasn’t the same, the result of a broken femur suffered during Army All-American Bowl practices that forced him to miss the entire 2013 season.
The following fall, he was back — until he wasn’t. Hunter Jr. tore his groin in training camp, and proceeded to miss the first three games of the 2014 season before amassing just seven catches and one touchdown in the following 10 games.
But little by little, as a frustrating season washed away and spring practice took its place, a funny thing happened: Hunter Jr. got healthy, and his explosiveness reared its head.
“I tore my groin last year during camp, so that was kind of nagging,” Hunter Jr. said last week. “It was lingering. Toward the end of the year, I started feeling like myself again. And when spring rolled around, I started building confidence.”
That momentum grew throughout the spring and summer, as the son of longtime major leaguer Torii Hunter moonlighted with the baseball team and continued to perfect his chemistry with quarterback Malik Zaire.
By the start of training camp, that snowball had grown into an avalanche. The 6-foot, 195-pound junior wiggled around defensive backs, at one point hauling in a leaping, acrobatic touchdown grab that inevitably found its way to Sportscenter’s Top 10 plays. Physically, he was the Torii Hunter Jr. of old.
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But mentally, he was a different, more developed player.
“I feel so much more mature,” Hunter Jr. said. “Coach (Mike) Denbrock does a great job with the receivers, harping on just becoming a better man, a better teammate, a better leader.
“I think I have become a better leader and a better player just from watching film and trying to become more vocal and bring guys along.”
And this season, for the first time in years, Hunter Jr. can lead by example, on pace to contribute to the Notre Dame offense at multiple wide receiver positions. He understands the offense and his position within it well enough to pass that knowledge along to the Irish’s younger playmakers.
But that doesn’t mean his spot is secure.
“Equanimeous St. Brown, C.J. Sanders, those guys are really good,” Hunter Jr. said of the team’s freshman wide receivers. “They have it good because we have the OTAs (organized team activities) earlier in the summer, so it wasn’t all thrown on them at once. We were able to help them in film and different things like that in the summer.
“They are definitely ahead of where I was and the class after me, because they knew a lot of plays coming in.”
The increased number of capable freshmen has created more competition at the wide receiver position than ever in the Brian Kelly Era.
These days, everyone is talented, and no one is safe.
“We just have so many guys,” Kelly said. “Amir Carlisle is playing well. Chris Brown is playing well. Corey (Robinson) is continuing to do the job.
“We have great depth at the wide receiver position. We’re blessed there. There are just so many guys there that can help us win football games.”
For the first time in nearly two seasons, add a healthy Torii Hunter Jr. to that list. And while he may finally feel like his old self, the rising junior isn’t afraid to adopt tricks from his teammates.
“The coaches have been working with me a lot and challenging me to master the offense so I can be used in different spots,” Hunter Jr. said. “I just kind of accepted that challenge. I’ve been working a lot in the film room and making sure I figure out how to run different routes.
“I’m looking at Amir (Carlisle), looking at Will (Fuller) because they played a lot last season. I’m looking to see what worked for them and taking bits and pieces from both of them.”