Lack of replay on hit that sidelined Notre Dame WR Torii Hunter Jr. raises questions
AUSTIN, Texas — Torii Hunter Jr. lay on the ground resting on his back with his left forearm extended in the air.
Moments prior, Texas safety DeShon Elliott delivered a blow to Hunter’s head as Hunter tried to haul in a DeShone Kizer pass in the end zone.
While Notre Dame trainers tended to the senior wide receiver, the video board inside Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium didn’t show the replay. The footage, and the damage, could have been too much for the crowd to stomach.
Fortunately, Hunter walked off the field after a delay of a couple minutes. He was later taken to the Notre Dame locker room during a 50-47 double overtime loss to Texas. Hunter did not return to the game.
More stunning than the hit may have been the lack of replay from the officiating crew. Even though a targeting penalty wasn’t initially called on the field, the replay official could have overruled officials on the field. The NCAA rulebook for 2016 states the replay official “may create a targeting foul, but only in egregious instance in which a foul is not called by the officials on the field. Such a review may not be initiated by a coach’s challenge.”
All the complaining in the world from head coach Brian Kelly, who described his discussions with the officials as "heated," wasn’t going to force another look at the play. The on-field officials never signaled that replay official Richard Jordan had called the play under review.
"It wasn’t even reviewed, which just doesn’t make any sense to me," Kelly said. "I’ve been in this game a long time, and I know when somebody gets hit in the head. He certainly was hit in the head on that play in the end zone. It’s just unfortunate that it wasn’t officiated or reviewed in a manner that I thought it should have been.”
A targeting penalty includes “forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder,” according the NCAA rulebook. Elliott appeared to strike Hunter’s head with his right shoulder as Hunter gathered the ball and began to plant both feet on the ground. Elliott extended his arms in Hunter’s face as he fell to the turf.
"I don't know much about the rule and how that comes into play," Kizer said, "but if there is targeting on a defenseless receiver, I'm pretty sure that's a hit that you're going to want to replay over and over again."
Head coach Brian Kelly never used the word concussion when describing Hunter's injury after the game, but did point to the head as the source of concern.
"If he doesn’t play the rest of the game that we were concerned about the lingering effects of the hit to the head," Kelly said. "We’ll have him further evaluated later."
Hunter's father, the former MLB All-Star was in attendance Sunday night as was seen on the ABC broadcast heading toward the Notre Dame locker room. He described his son's injury as a concussion on Twitter.
— Torii Hunter (@toriihunter48) September 5, 2016
The trip to Austin had the potential to be all smiles for Hunter, who attended high school in Prosper, Texas. His five-yard touchdown catch from DeShone Kizer late in the third quarter pulled the Irish within three points. Later in the quarter, Hunter nearly returned the favor to Kizer. After receiving the ball on a reverse, Hunter stopped in the backfield and threw back to his left to a wide-open Kizer nearing the end zone. The pass was on target, but Kizer couldn’t extend his arms far enough to haul in the pass.
On the next play, Hunter’s night came to an uncertain end with the hit from Elliott. Freshman wide receiver Kevin Stepherson joined the offense in Hunter’s absence. If Hunter’s injury requires him to miss time, Stepherson would likely be the leading candidate to assume his role. Junior Corey Holmes could also slide outside after being listed as the backup to C.J. Sanders in the slot. Freshman Javon McKinley, who traveled with the team to Texas, would move up the depth chart.
Entering the season, Hunter accounted for 28 of the 30 career catches recorded by a Notre Dame wide receiver on the current roster. Only sophomores Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders had tallied a reception before Sunday night.