April 24, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – A year ago, as Marshall went through spring football practice, it seemed D.J. Hunter was ready to be the Herd’s starting strong safety. He was running with the “ones”.
As they say… that was then, and this is now … in many ways.
By the end of last season, the 6-foot, 207-pound Hunter had become a Freshman All-America selection by The Sporting News. But he became the starting strongside linebacker for MU, after a Week 2 move from safety -- where he began the season backing up Boston College graduate transfer Dominick LeGrande.
Hunter remained the Herd’s starting nickel back, but he learned to play “in the box,” and now he’s back at strong safety with a new defensive coordinator and secondary coach, Chuck Heater.
“It’s good,” Hunter said. “Coach Heater is a great teacher and coach. I have no choice but to listen to him. I’d be crazy if I didn’t listen to him. You see that he's coached the best. He's been great places.
“Everyone knows the schools. He was at Florida when they won a national championship, he and Coach (Doc) Holliday. Whatever he's got to say, I'm listening.”
And on a defense that Heater is retooling from a unit that ranked near the bottom nationally in yards and points allowed, Hunter, a redshirt sophomore from Middletown, Ohio, is one of the mainstays.
He’s the Herd’s leading returnee in tackles (102 in 2012), and he’s the only safety who has played much or at all.
You’ve heard of “safety in numbers?” This is “numbers at safety.”
“We’ve got a lot more talent back there,” Hunter said. “Last year it was Dom and “O” (free safety Okechukwu Okoroha, another BC transfer). Now, in there with me we’ve got Shawn Samuels, A.J. Leggett, Corie Wilson and Taj Letman.”
(There’s also veteran Derek Mitchell
, who can morph between linebacker and safety. The talent level appears deep enough that the Herd staff has been trying redshirt freshman Andre Scott
at wide receiver.)
“We’re all competing for playing time,” Hunter said. “Nobody has any set position, no starters yet. It’s a long way until we play a game. Everybody knows they’ve got to go hard every day, bring it every play you’re on the field.
“You’d better pack your lunch every day.”
The Herd wraps spring practice with a Thursday workout and then Saturday’s Green-White Game at 2 p.m., and Holliday knows he can count on Hunter.
"D.J. did some good things athletically for us (last season)," Holliday said. "Our package is a little bit different from what we were a year ago. We'll probably be playing with a little bit more five and six defensive backs at times.
“When you do that, you stand back, and you don’t have D.J. on the bench watching. You want him in there playing. At that safety position, you won't come out. We'll substitute for linebackers in certain situations and certain packages."
So, whether it’s the base 4-3-4 or 4-2-5 or 3-3-5, Hunter will be doing some hunting.
“I’m happy where I am,” Hunter said of the move back to his former spot. “In my heart, I wanted to go back. It’s a good position for me. But if the coaches want to move me somewhere or need me somewhere, I’m not going to argue. I’ll go where I’m needed. I just want to win.”
Hunter said the biggest difference from linebacker to safety is the distance he plays from the ball – a distance he can close rapidly with his 4.39 speed in the 40.
And Holliday said Hunter’s season at linebacker can only boost the aggressive defender and the Herd in 2013 and beyond.
"It's going to help him as far as his physical-ness is concerned," Holliday said. "He's still a linebacker at times out there. He's got ‘strong safety’ beside his name, but he's going to get down into that box quite a bit and play the same thing he played a year ago.
“That experience he had playing in the box is going to be valuable because he'll be in there at times this year."
That’s OK with Hunter. He’s happy to be “home” again, and thrilled with the increased depth throughout the secondary.
“Getting adjusted to linebacker was tough at first, seeing over the (linemen), playing gaps,” Hunter said. “Now, I’m in the back again, and Coach Heater has us playing a whole lot of man. Last year was a bunch of zones.
“With Coach Heater, I’ve got a feeling we’re going to shock some people with how much better we’ll be on defense. We’re going to do a whole lot better than we did last year.”