SOUTH BEND, Ind. — On a crowded wide receiver depth chart, Notre Dame redshirt sophomore Torii Hunter Jr. appears to have carved out an important niche during his first healthy preseason camp.
Hunter came to Notre Dame as an injured freshman — he broke his leg in January 2013 — and last year tore his groin in early August. Once healthy enough in 2013, he served on the scout team; and he admitted his injury never fully went away in 2014. So practices this August have been the first real look Notre Dame coaches have had at the son of the Minnesota Twins outfielder.
And they’ve come away impressed.
“We’ve seen flashes and for two years we’ve said boy, when he’s healthy, he’s as good as anybody we got,” wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock said. “It just hasn’t come to fruition because he hasn’t been healthy enough for that to be a reality. Good lord wiling, now that he is healthy and playing at full speed and feeling strong, he’s been able to showcase what those abilities are and it’s really good to see.”
Those abilities, Denbrock said, include “terrific” hands, good speed, strong football knowledge and most importantly, important versatility. Hunter primarily works as a slot receiver, but coaches believe he has the ability to play outside on the field (behind Will Fuller) and boundary (behind Chris Brown/Corey Robinson).
“He's probably our most versatile receiver in that he has the size and the speed, and the ability to work inside out at the slot position because of his elusiveness,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We probably don't have another player that has that ability on the roster.
“So (he’s) a unique talent from that standpoint, so you'll hear a lot about him this year. He'll get a lot of playing time. He's had a very good camp, and I think consistency he's been as good as anybody we've had in preseason camp.”
That versatility is something Notre Dame didn’t have last year, even when its receiver corps had a breakout star in Fuller (76 catches, 1,094 yards, 15 TDs) and a strong tandem opposite him (Robinson and Brown combined for 79 catches, 1,087 yards and 6 TDs). But Hunter was banged up, only catching seven passes for 65 yards and rushing twice for 13 yards.
"We really were more pigeonholed into specific places," Denbrock said.
With Hunter healthy and C.J. Prosise moving from the slot to running back, the Irish offense will have plenty of versatility for third downs and late-game plays. And the kind of mismatches Denbrock thinks he, Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford can create could be the difference between converting game-changing or game-saving plays.
“When you get to third down in particular or you get to critical situations in the game, those are the things you spend the whole week game planning,” Denbrock said. “This is the matchup we’re going to create with this formation. We want him matched on a safety, we want him matched on a linebacker. let’s flip this guy over here and move this guy over here instead of just lining up the same way all the time.”
Hunter reached the precipice of contributing to the Irish offense through a remarkable persistence, not only fighting through his two injuries but dealing with a grueling two-sport schedule during spring practice. He joined the Notre Dame baseball team earlier this year — which also has on its roster Houston Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio’s two sons and former Astros/Phillies closer Brad Lidge’s cousin — and had to be at football practice at 6 a.m., then go to class, then go to baseball practice and then finish his homework and tutoring.
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Hunter’s father said there was a day he called his son around 8 or 9 p.m. and it sounded like Hunter Jr. was already asleep — a fairly uncommon bedtime for a college student. But it’s not surprising Hunter Jr. was willing to put himself through those 14- or 15-hour days earlier this year since he cited the work ethic instilled in him by his father, who at age 40 is still an everyday player in the major leagues.
“He just told me like, if you want something bad enough, you just gotta go do it,” Hunter said. “You gotta do it, don’t complain about it, just go do it.”
If all goes according to plan for Notre Dame and Hunter this fall, he’ll have a chance to pay homage to his father in late November.
On Nov. 21, Notre Dame plays Boston College at Fenway Park, where his father famously flipped over the right field wall trying to catch a David Ortiz grand slam in the 2013 ALCS all while a police officer rose his arms in celebration. Hunter knows the photo well, and laughed when asked if he hoped to re-create it in the right field end zone this fall.
“That would be epic if that happened,” Hunter said. “That would be epic. With the hands up, that’d be pretty cool. I’d do it just for laughs. I’d just go jump over it.”