Notre Dame WR Torii Hunter Jr. expanding his role

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Torii Hunter Jr., wants to be booed.

Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., specifically, and not by the legions of Notre Dame fans who are able to infiltrate sold-out Scott Stadium for No. 9 and 1-0 ND’s first road test of the season.

“That’s just a great experience to have,” the Notre Dame junior wide receiver said of the hostile reception he hopes greets him and his teammates.

For the first stretch of his three-year career at ND, the Irish two-sport athlete is actually healthy enough to be booed, able to run full speed and cut without hesitation, pain or both. For the first time, he feels more real than rumor.

Last Saturday night against Texas, the Texan made his first college start. Virginia (0-1) represents just his 12th collegiate game overall and his fourth true road game.

A broken leg suffered five months before he enrolled at ND and chronic complications, followed by a groin injury, kept Hunter’s potential on hold for more than a season.

“I always knew Torii was a dynamic player for us,” said quarterback Malik Zaire, who was part of the same 2013 recruiting class. “Back when he came to school, I knew he had a lot of special qualities about him.

“He has some of the best hands on the team and runs some of the best routes. With him in the game, I’m a lot more comfortable.”

And now so is ND head coach Brian Kelly, because of Hunter’s burst, because of his resolve and because of his versatility.

Hunter can play all three of ND’s receiver positions, with the slot receiver being his primary home. With starting running back Tarean Folston out for the season with a torn ACL and the running back rotation now freshman-heavy, don’t be surprised if Hunter gets a few more opportunities in the running game.

“He’s just very natural with the football,” Kelly said.

Hunter’s first collegiate play, in fact, was a six-yard run in a rout of Syracuse at East Rutherford, N.J., last September. That was immediately followed by a 13-yard TD pass from Everett Golson. But he had only seven more touches the rest of the season.

Last Saturday Hunter had two receptions for 31 yards and a two-yard run. His inspiration moving forward is no longer his own injury-cluttered past, which finally gave way to full health at the end of July, but winning and playing well for close friend Folston.

"My TD celebrations will be a shout-out to him,” said Hunter.

It’s really the first time Hunter has had a scoring ritual of any sort, he says, since he was an aspiring T-ball player.

“I used to do the Sammy Sosa deal,” he said, going through the chest tap/finger kiss combination of the former Chicago Cubs slugger.

Baseball remains in Hunter’s future as well, if it will have him. Last spring Hunter re-immersed himself in the sport for the first time since his junior year at Prosper (Texas) High School, but the outfielder garnered cameos in just four of NCAA Tourney-qualifying ND’s 60 games and one hitless at-bat.

He had to shake the cobwebs and dodge football commitments, but was happy being able to practice regularly, even if it didn’t turn into playing time.

“It went smoother than I thought it would be,” said Hunter, in June of 2013 a 36th-round draft choice of the Detroit Tigers, the organization his Major League outfielder father was playing for at the time.

“Of course it was tough with school and everything. I made sure I went to tutoring and things like that. They helped me get it done. Sometimes it was the aftereffects of 6 a.m., football practice and then 4 p.m., baseball practice. Those kind of things showed up from time to time.

“I kind of just had to push through that. They knew what kind of player I was. They saw the glimpses that I have.”

It’s his football glimpses, increasingly brighter and bunched closer together, that have started to distance his narrative from being the son of Torii Hunter Sr., back with the Minnesota Twins.

Not that it’s particularly burdensome.

“I never felt pressure to play baseball,” Hunter Jr., said. “I did at one point feel the pressure to be really good. But as I grew up, I learned that’s part of the game, and just kind of became my own person.”

He relishes the relationships from his youth, getting to meet the likes of Sosa, Derek Jeter and David Ortiz.

“I got to interact with them, play catch with them, different things like that,” he said.

The problem for a long time, though, was he was painfully shy. He’d get nervous around them, couldn’t talk.

"My dad told me, ‘Go have a grown-man conversation.’ That’s what he called them. I finally got out of my shell.”

He’s coming out of his shell in a different way now, in a different sport and perhaps with a brighter future.

“No matter what they want me to do, I just make sure I’ve perfect at my craft and attack it,” he said. “It’s basically what I’m here for, just whatever they need me to do, I make sure I’ll get it done.”

Notre Dame wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. during the Notre Dame-Syracuse game on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)