SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Torii Hunter Jr. hopes to pay homage to his father this weekend, but doesn’t want to do so at the expense of saddling his team with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
With Notre Dame facing Boston College at Fenway Park on Saturday, and one of the end zones extending toward the venerable baseball stadium's right field wall, Hunter could have an opportunity to flip into the Boston Red Sox bullpen and re-create that famous photo of his dad, then an outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, with his legs straight up in the air as a Boston police officer celebrates David Ortiz’s grand slam in the 2013 American League Championship Series.
“I’m kind of nervous,” Hunter laughed. “I don’t want to get flagged or something.”
Torii Hunter Sr. retired from baseball after the 2015 season, ending a 19-year career in which he hit 353 home runs, won nine Gold Gloves and made five All-Star Games. He hit .322 in 63 games at Fenway Park, his highest batting average at a stadium in which he played 15 or more games.
But Torii Hunter Jr. is making a name for himself at Notre Dame that goes beyond his well-known father.
Hunter is fifth on Notre Dame in targets (27) and receptions (21), fourth in yards (267) and tied for second in touchdowns (two, illustrating how much of a force Will Fuller has been). The versatile redshirt sophomore not only has been moved around from the slot out wide, but he’s also played a few snaps on defense as a nickel cornerback over the last two weeks.
In Notre Dame’s last three games, Hunter has 10 catches for 121 yards with a touchdown. Those aren’t game-breaking numbers, but in an offense that features explosive threats like Fuller and running back C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame only needs him to be a complementary weapon.
Coach Brian Kelly said he and his offensive staff have been working to get the ball in Hunter’s hands more, a nod to the Prosper, Texas native’s athleticism and savvy knowledge of his job.
When Notre Dame needed to begin reversing some red zone issues two weekends ago at Pittsburgh, Hunter’s number was called to make a difficult catch through a tight window in the end zone. He succeeded, reeling in a DeShone Kizer laser for a 12-yard touchdown.
“He just hasn't had enough of those opportunities,” Kelly said. “But as you can see, he's getting more of those kinds of opportunities. When we need him, we're going to him.”
Still, those 10 catches Hunter has over his last three games represent over a third of his career receptions (28). But with every throw that comes his way, Hunter believes more in his abilities.
“I’m feeling a lot more confident, a lot more confidence with my hands, just being able to make plays and make contested catches, catches in traffic, things like that,” Hunter said. “I think that’s been the biggest thing for me over the last couple years.”
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As Notre Dame pushes for the College Football Playoff, it’ll continue to rely on Fuller — who has 47 receptions, 937 yards and 12 touchdowns — to be its big-play receiver. Fuller’s been targeted on a little more than one in every four throws, while Chris Brown has seen 21 percent of Notre Dame’s targets. Combined, roughly one in every two passes goes to either Fuller or Brown.
But one of Notre Dame’s offensive strengths is having a relatively deep pool of pass-catchers to throw to if Fuller is double covered and Brown can’t work his way open. Hunter is part of that group, and perhaps on Saturday, he’ll work his way open in the right field end zone that leads him to unintentionally go careening over the bullpen wall, too.
“If it happens naturally,” Hunter smiled, “that would be epic.”