Torii Hunter Jr. becomes two-way player for Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH — Torii Hunter Jr. was given two periods to prove he could play two ways.

During Notre Dame’s stretch lines prior to practice on Monday, Oct. 26, head coach Brian Kelly approached Hunter — a wide receiver by trade — and told him to play defensive back during the second and third periods. The 6-foot, 195-pound junior hadn’t been featured on defense since high school, when he doubled as a cornerback throughout his sophomore and senior seasons.

But this wasn’t a prank, a dream or hallucination.

Hunter looked like a suitable nickelback, but could he play like one?

“We couldn’t trade for a nickel,” Kelly joked following No. 8 Notre Dame’s 42-30 victory over Pittsburgh on Saturday. “He just has the physical skills that translated to be able to play on defense.”

Early on, however, Hunter’s alleged versatility seemed lost in translation.

“My first couple 1-on-1’s (in practice) were going against C.J. Sanders in the slot. Uh…he got me a couple times, but it is what it is,” Hunter said sheepishly. “It happens.”

Apparently, it happened infrequently enough to earn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s favor.

“That was kind of like my test,” Hunter recalled. “VanGorder was standing over there watching me. After the first period he told me he thought I was good enough for it, and it went from there, learning the defense.”

Senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell certainly helped in that regard, staying after practice with Hunter to accelerate the junior’s transition. The rapidity of his progress, which was visible on Saturday, didn’t serve as a surprise.

“Oh man, he’s an athlete,” said junior linebacker Jaylon Smith (a pot), of Hunter (a kettle). “He can do multiple things.”

On Saturday, Hunter became the first Notre Dame player to appear on both sides of the ball since Tom Zbikowski did it in 2007. The Prosper, Texas, native recorded three catches for 37 yards and a touchdown, while also making a limited appearance as a nickelback on defense.

His most visible moment came early in the second quarter, when Hunter lined up in the slot, cut cleanly across the middle and snagged a 13-yard touchdown grab with Panther safety Terrish Webb draped inconveniently on his back.

“I saw the SAM (linebacker) blitz. He got drawn in by the run action,” Hunter said. “It was 1-on-1 with the safety, and I knew I had to win that battle.”

Hunter’s battles, on a cloudy November Saturday in Pittsburgh, came from both sides of the line. And though he played sparingly on defense, failing to record a tackle, he also didn’t allow a catch.

“It was fun, man,” said Hunter, who plays on the Notre Dame baseball team as well. “I was looking forward to it all game. I was standing by the coaches, just waiting for them to call me in. I was ready to attack it and help out any way I can.”

Added Kelly: “Amir (Carlisle) is still going to get some snaps (at slot receiver), so we felt like there was a batch of maybe 15 or 20 snaps that we could put aside if we needed (Hunter) as a nickel. We didn’t need him a ton today.”

But how much will they need him going forward? And considering that Hunter has caught the ball (19 catches, 245 yards, two touchdowns), ran the ball (four carries, 12 yards) and thrown the ball (1 for 2, 35 yards) this season, what might be coming next?

“I have no idea,” Hunter said with a smile and a shrug. “Whatever they need me to do.”


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame's Torii Hunter Jr. (16) carries the ball past Pitt's Avonte Maddox(14) during the second half at Heinz Field Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Pittsburgh. SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ