Notre Dame WR Torii Hunter Jr. seeking own Fenway Park highlight

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

BOSTON — There’s a place in Fenway Park, right field in the baseball alignment, that’s special to Torii Hunter, Jr.

A couple years ago, the Notre Dame football team’s junior receiver was watching his dad, then an outfielder with the Detroit Tigers, go the distance while chasing a long fly ball in a game against the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series.

In fact, his dad went the distance — and then some.

It was Game 2 of the series, bases loaded in the eighth inning, and the Tigers led by four. Boston’s David Ortiz hit a long drive to right. Hunter chased it to the short fence and leaped high to try to foil the home run. Hunter missed the ball, then tumbled head over heels over the fence into the bullpen.

An amazingly athletic display more memorable than the grand slam.

Does Torii Hunter, Jr., have any plans to recreate his dad’s leap Saturday night when Notre Dame takes on Boston College at Fenway?

“If (jumping over the fence into the bullpen) happens naturally, that would be epic,” Hunter said with a big smile on his face. “I’m sure people would make a big deal about it, and it’d be all on Twitter.

“Actually, I was kind of concerned (for his dad’s safety). That fall was kind of far. I was kind of concerned for the most part, but I was mad they hit the home run.”

Hunter probably won’t need something so dramatic to draw plenty of attention. After a slow start to the season, the 6-foot, 195-pounder is becoming a much more viable option in the Irish offense.

He has caught 21 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns this season, but 17 of those receptions, 216 of the yards, and both TDs have come in the last six games.

A 12-yard scoring pass from DeShone Kizer against Pitt was an example of the progress that Hunter has made.

“He's always been a pretty savvy guy,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of Hunter. “That (touchdown pass) was a stutter route off of a safety. He was showing (as) if he was going to block the safety and kind of got the safety to sit his seat down, and then burst. He's always been really good at that. That's kind of been his, I would say, strength, coming in.

“Then he just hasn't had enough of those opportunities. But as you can see, he's getting more of those kinds of opportunities. When we need him, we're going to him. Especially those kinds of plays.”

“I’ve just gotta win my individual battles,” Hunter said. “I have to make the plays when they come to me.

“(Against Pitt), in the defense they were in, I knew the ball was coming to me. I knew I had to win. I won. There was a tight window, and (Kizer) put it right there for me.”

The success that Hunter has enjoyed lately has allowed him to see more balls thrown in his direction, even with a guy like Will Fuller — a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award for the nation’s top receiver — also running routes.

“(It’s) probably just us recognizing that he needed to get those touches, and just being smarter coaches,” Kelly said.

“You always root for the success of others,” Hunter said of what it’s like with Fuller in the pass pattern. “We’re not a selfish group. Whoever makes the plays makes the plays.

“A lot of teams are starting to play us pretty normal (rather than leaning heavily toward Fuller).”

Hunter thinks that Boston College, with the No. 1 defense in the country (giving up 164.8 passing yards), will take a physical approach to dealing with the Irish.

“They play a lot of hard ‘bump’ (man-to-man defense),” Hunter said. “They bring pretty good pressure that can catch people off guard. We’re doing a good job preparing for that. They may get you a couple times, but hopefully we’ll get the upper hand.”

Hunter’s development has been a process. Used primarily at slot receiver, he’s gone from catching seven passes for 65 yards and a touchdown last year to being an integral part of the offense now.

“I’ve got a lot more confidence in my hands (than last year),” Hunter said. “Being able to make plays, and making catches in traffic, have been the biggest (improvements) for me in the last couple years.

“They trust me to make these plays because I’ve been consistent with it.”

That hasn’t always been the case, though. Still vivid in Hunter’s mind is a time in spring practice between his freshman (when he didn’t play while recuperating from a broken leg suffered before he came to Notre Dame) and sophomore seasons. Receivers coach Mike Denbrock loudly called him out.

“(He was) screaming on the field,” Hunter said laughing. “He was screaming at me to make the contested catches. That stuck with me. I knew I had to get better at it.

“I’m not somebody who will break down. I took it as constructive criticism. I went to work with it and have gotten better.”

Saturday’s another opportunity for Hunter to show — and measure — the progress he’s made.

Even if it takes leaping over a fence to do it.

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