Sept. 20, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – D.J. Hunter is not only playing strongside linebacker for Marshall, he’ll make his third career start this week.
The redshirt freshman was moved from after Week 1 of the season from strong safety, where Hunter was backing up graduate transfer Dominick LeGrande. He also was the Thundering Herd’s nickel back … still is, in fact.
However, he wouldn’t have bet a dime that he’d be playing, period, when Marshall (1-2) goes to Rice (1-2) on Saturday afternoon for a Conference USA opener.
Asked his thoughts about moving up a line in the Herd defense, Hunter grinned after practice Tuesday and said, “It was right. They told me I was going to linebacker but to be honest, I’ll do anything to help me team. If they told me to go to D-end, I’d have done it, just to get on the field.
“It’s just good to be playing again.”
Hunter’s well-chronicled absence from a sport he loves – and he plays that way, to be sure – started in the summer of 2009, just after his senior year at Middleton (Ohio) High. Hunter had been headed to Tennessee, but that opportunity was curbed. He got the go-ahead to resume football in February 2011. Now, the 6-foot, 199-pound Hunter is primed to be one of the Herd’s defensive leaders, after a 13-tackle performance with a forced fumble in last week’s loss to Ohio.
“I never thought I would play again,” Hunter said. “I thought it was over, honestly. I’m not going to lie. But I had faith, you know what I’m saying? That’s the only thing that kept me going, keeping me right. I was a real tough, real tough time in my life, but I had family around me supporting me, keeping my head up, and I’m so thankful for that.”
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday
and his staff stayed in contact, and Hunter enrolled at MU. His trials weren’t over, he said, but he had found another support group.
“I’m just grateful Marshall gave me the opportunity,” Hunter said. “It was the happiest day of my life when I got that call that I could come here, because I thought it was going to be over.
“I appreciate it, appreciate it, appreciate it -- every day -- that I got to come to Marshall, play football and go to school. I got to live my dream.”
It’s taken a while, however. Herd defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Chris Rippon said Hunter “was pretty rusty” after not playing – a period that Hunter thought would end a year ago. Instead, he’d have three seasons away from the game.
In July 2011, Hunter tore left knee ligaments and underwent surgery for a lateral meniscus tear. With fellow linebacker Evan McKelvey likely gone for the season after a knee injury last week against Ohio, Hunter knows the feeling.
“I hate that happened,” Hunter said. “You don’t wish that on anybody. I had it happen myself, and it really knocks you down. I was really down after having to be out and then I was ready to come back and then it happens.
“I missed it so much, and then I come back and have to sit out again. It really hit me hard. The hardest part is going through the spring and then it happens and watching my team play, and play well, and I wish I could have helped them, at any position, special teams, anything, I didn’t care. I wanted to play; I just couldn’t.”
Hunter laughs about his position switch and said last season as he sat out, former safety Omar Brown and other teammates told him he’d eventually “go to sam linebacker anyway, and they were right, so it isn’t too bad … I still call it nickel.”
So does his position coach. In the LB meeting room, Rippon puts “S/N” on the board for Hunter’s position in Marshall’s version of the TCU 4-2-5.
It appeared in spring ball that Hunter was primed to start at strong safety, before the Herd landed two transfer safeties from Boston College in LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha. In preseason camp, it became obvious early they were the starters.
So, Hunter was waiting again … but not for long.
“D.J. is on the field because he’s one of the best 11,” Rippon said. “We had to get him on the field, and I thought he had a heckuva ballgame Saturday night (vs. Ohio). Nine tackles, four assists, but the most impressive thing is he was able to stay focused, play in, play out, even with the different assignments he had.
“He did an excellent job, excellent job, in man coverage, and we played man quite a bit. And he didn’t back down when he was in the box. He played special teams, too, and came back out, and really took a big step, himself as a football player, and helped us take a big step defensively – because he’s a big part of it.”
Rippon said he doesn’t think Hunter’s hopes were dashed when the two BC players arrived. The Herd defensive coordinator said he thought Hunter had some questions about his own preparedness to start.
“I think D.J. was just an inexperienced guy waiting to get on the field,” Rippon said. “He was on the fence as to, ‘I really want to play, but am I ready to play mentally?’ Those BC guys gave us a chance to not throw the burden of the world on him.
“The guy hadn’t played in three years and it’s ‘Hey, I’m the starting safety and I’ve got to make all these checks and make all these plays and get the other guy on the ground when he’s in the open field,’ so it was both sides of the fence. But we assured D.J., ‘If you’re one of the best, we’re going to find a way to play the players who make the plays.’”
Hunter said he is still adapting to linebacker, and didn’t stress about Okoroha and LeGrande landing with the Herd.
“I mean, it was ‘Whatever,’” Hunter said. “They’re my teammates, good guys, good players. I was still going to work hard. It wasn’t like I wasn’t going to play. I was still the nickel.
“Moving to linebacker was OK, but when I first got there, the hardest thing was learning the run gaps. That’s the only thing that was different because everything else is outside the box. Once I learn the run gaps better and what you do with that, I’ll be fine, and I think I’ll get a lot better.”
Asked whether he’s enthused about getting into what Rippon calls “Conference NBA” opposition and facing opponents for whom the Herd defense is designed in particular, Hunter said, “I think we can be designed to play against anybody. We took a big step last week.
“At the end of the day, I think this can be the No. 1 defense in the conference, that’s what I think. If we listen to Coach Rip, he’s really smart, and he’ll get us in position, the right places. We’ve just go to execute it.
“And I really appreciate being part of it. It’s great to finally play.”