March 31, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Is he a strong safety in linebacker’s clothing, or a linebacker in strong safety’s clothing?
“I’m whatever they need me to be,” the latest Marshall football reincarnation of D.J. Hunter said. “I’m not a selfish player. Whatever I’ve got to do to help my team, I’m going to do it. I just want to stay healthy and make plays.”
Well, Herd defensive coordinator Chuck Heater does use the word “disguise” when referring to how Hunter will be utilized in 2014.
Hunter, a redshirt junior, is moving for a third time in his Herd career. This time, it’s a switch from strong safety to strong side (sam) linebacker, a position he played so well in 2012 that he was named a Freshman All-America pick by The Sporting News.
In making the move, Marshall Coach Doc Holliday uses the same words he offered when Hunter was moved from safety to linebacker the previous time, after Week 1 of the 2012 season.
“We’re just trying to get our best 11 on the field,” Holliday said.
After the veteran Heater was brought in as coordinator last winter, the 6-foot, 212-pound Hunter moved from linebacker to strong safety, where he started the first seven games and played almost every opposing snap to that point.
After a hit late in a loss at Middle Tennessee sidelined Hunter with concussion-like symptoms, true freshman Tiquan Lang took over and made the final seven starts, pretty much relegating Hunter to special teams duty.
Hunter had been a safety during his 2011 redshirt year and all the way through spring and August drills for 2011.
Now, Hunter is back with the “ones,” and it appears Heater’s unit might play more often with three linebackers than it did during last year’s 10-4 success that included a Military Bowl victory.
That’s because Hunter has the kind of athleticism and experience to play as a nickel on some downs. It gives the MU defense more versatility.
“It feels good being back out there,” Hunter said. “Everything happens for a reason and I’m just trying to get out there, help my team any way I can, make plays I know I can make.”
Asked after Saturday’s third workout of spring drills whether he prefers linebacker or safety, Hunter smiled and put a forefinger to his lips in a “Shhhh” motion.
“Don’t tell anybody, but I like where I am now,” Hunter said. “I like being in the action. That’s the kind of player I feel like I am. I like being physical, and feel it’s my style of play. At (free) safety, A.J. Leggett, he’s a player. Tiquan Lang, that’s a baller right there. They can handle that back there.”
Holliday said Hunter’s aggressive style fits well with Heater’s scheme that’s rooted in man coverage. The Middletown, Ohio, native also adds to a strong linebacker corps that includes Jermaine Holmes, Evan McKelvey, Neville Hewitt, Stefan Houston (moved from sam to the weak side) and Hunter’s backup, Raheem Waiters.
“D.J., he does a better job playing in the box, at the second level than he does the third level,” Holliday said on the eve of spring drills. “Things don’t happen as quick up there. But it also gives us a more athletic person on that second level. We can do some different things.
“We may not be quite as much nickel as we were, because D.J. can go out and even though he’s a ‘sam,’ he’s no different than the nickel position, and he can play some of that. And it allows us to put (2013 nickel) Corey Tindal out at corner. He’ll be out there a lot this spring, and we can always bring him back in to play nickel. It gives us flexibility with the defense, and we’re trying to get our best 11 out there.”
Hunter started the last 11 games at strong side linebacker in 2012 after playing at safety in the opener at West Virginia. He made 102 tackles to go with 3.5 tackles for loss, two pass breakups and a forced fumble. Among freshmen nationally, only Houston free safety Trevon Stewart had more than 102 tackles.
Hunter posted four double-digit tackle games that season, including three straight against Southern Miss (11), UCF (10) and Memphis (12) and a season-high 18 in the finale at East Carolina. Against league-leading Tulsa, he also returned a fumbled point-after attempt for two points.
He had 50 tackles last season, and until he was injured, only left the field for one series in a rout of Gardner-Webb and in goal-line defense, with Heater using cornerback Darryl Roberts as the only secondary member in those sets.
“It’s kind of the same, truthfully,” Hunter said when asked if the “sam” of 2012 and 2014 are similar. “I like it. It’s a happy comeback for me. I just want to go in there and help the boys because we’ve got some good linebackers, Freak (Holmes), Neville, Evan, Stefan, Raheem, we’ve got a good group because they’re really good players, and we’ve got a very good coach (Adam Fuller).
“It does help having played linebacker and then safety. Some of the stuff I know, but some of the stuff is different and I don’t know, so I’m just trying to listen to my coach and go day-by-day. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of the same all around. I’ve just got to get back in the groove and try to make some plays out there.”
Hunter, 23, is the oldest Marshall student-athlete with remaining eligibility. Heading into his fourth season in Holliday’s program, he brings experience as well as a tackling skill that was enhanced as MU improved by five wins last season.
What’s more important is Hunter’s athleticism at the second level of the defense. In team testing last summer, Hunter’s vertical jump of 40 feet, 5 inches was the team’s best by more than 2 feet. Hunter’s 10-3 long jump trailed only that of graduating running back Essray Taliaferro (10-5 1/2).
“With D.J. at sam with Waiters, we’ll have some guys who can run there,” Holliday said. “D.J. is a safety playing linebacker, and we can take Tiquan Lang and put him at nickel some, try to do some things this spring to give us more flexibility back there with the nickels and corners.
“With what Chuck’s doing defensively, you’ve got to have two corners and a nickel who can match up and play man coverage, take the space out of things, take away the easy-access throws. I thought we did a great job of that last season, taking away easy-access throws.
“The guys in the box will be better against the run. We get (the plus of) Corey at corner, and D.J. can match up at times against a tight end or a guy in the slot … D.J.’s a combination of a sam and a nickel, and I think he’ll be a good blitzer, too, when we’re bringing a guy off the edge.”
On a Herd defense with eight returning starters, Hunter becomes a ninth, of sorts. And the loss of a safety to linebacker will be countered when the 2014 recruiting class arrives this summer. Heater likes the options that a Hunter-at-linebacker gives the scheme.
“We tend to substitute according to the number of receivers in an offense, but you can certainly play what we’re doing now because of Hunter’s skill set,” Heater said. “You can play, using him, particularly on early downs. He’ll be fine in coverage on a slot receiver or tight end, capable of doing that. And we can play more (4-3) base because of what we’re doing.
“We always try to sub for sure against three wides, because we do a lot of man coverage, but there are the few things we’re doing now they actually complement and you can kind of hide that position a little bit in some combinations. And because of that, they can’t pick on that position, like a wideout normally would on a linebacker.
“The things we’re doing will hopefully help disguise that a bit, so yeah, I think we can play that on first and second downs, because ultimately, your job is to get the best players on the field. If he’s a compelling player, you’ve got to get him out there.
“If you’re short a corner, and you put a third corner in and if he’s not ready to play, you’re better off just playing your two best corners and put a guy like D.J. out there. The things we’re doing now help disguise it.”
With Hunter at linebacker, he can chase tight ends as well as quarterbacks in the passing game.
“Coming off the edge, I like that and I can do that,” Hunter said of his blitzing ability. “It’s mostly the way I played before, truthfully. In high school, I played rover, close to the line.
“I’ll do what I have to do to get there. I really like it. I’m just embracing the grind, like Coach Heater says. I think I really understand what ‘embracing the grind’ means now.”