Oct. 17, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Football coaches love to put labels on terminology and positions. There are X and Y for wide receivers, or 12s or 21s for personnel packages, and H-backs go in and out of vogue.
There are Mikes and Sams and Wills at linebacker. Some schools call a safety “Bandit.” In Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck Heater’s schemes, the rush end is “Fox.”
And perhaps the Thundering Herd should borrow from baseball and label its strong safety position “Gehrig” or “Ripken.”
How about “Ironman?”
That’s D.J. Hunter, who was a Freshman All-America pick by The Sporting News at linebacker in 2012 – because that’s where he was needed, as coach Doc Holliday likes to say, “to get the best 11 on the field.”
Returned to the position he left after one game a year ago, Hunter rarely gets off the field now.
As the Herd (4-2, 2-0) heads to Middle Tennessee (3-4, 1-2) for next Thursday night’s Conference USA national telecast game on Fox Sports 1 (7:30 EDT), Hunter figures to be on the field at “Red” Floyd Stadium for every MU defensive play.
Yes, he’s the “Ironman” … not to mention one of the best tacklers on a unit that is much improved in that regard.
After season-opening routs of Miami (Ohio) and Gardner-Webb when the Herd substituted liberally, Hunter has played 309 of 315 opponents’ offensive snaps.
The six he’s missed -- two at Virginia Tech and four versus UTSA? The Herd has been in goal-line defense, when cornerback Darryl Roberts is the only member of the secondary on the unit.
Hunter still only missed 11 snaps against Miami and 22 against Gardner-Webb. He’s played 91.2 percent of the Marshall plays on defense this season.
The Herd rolls nine defensive linemen in and out, uses four or five linebackers as regulars, plays two free safeties and four corners (counting nickel Corey Tindal). That depth and versatility has helped Heater’s hitmen greatly.
“It’s so long ago I can’t remember,” Hunter said, smiling, when asked if he could recall the last time he took off a play. “Really, I’m blessed to be in the position I’m in, but there are sometimes when I do get a little tired. But it’s all right. I’m going to stay in there and do what I’ve got to do because I love the game and this team.”
He’s not complaining at all.
He’s the Herd’s No. 3 tackler with 31 (behind linebackers Neville Hewitt and Jermaine Holmes). A year ago, when Hunter was No. 3 with 102, he trailed the safeties who were graduate-year transfers from Boston College to Marshall -- Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha.
Hunter was tied for second nationally among freshman tacklers, too.
Hunter’s backup is true freshman Tiquan Lang, who suffered an ankle sprain during special teams duty in last Saturday’s victory at FAU. Holliday said Lang – even when healthy – remains a work in progress on defense.
“D.J. plays an awful lot, in a way, unfortunately,” Holliday said. “Tiquan is backing up and he’s not quite ready. Physically, I think he’ll be ready at some point, but he’s got a ways to go. D.J. has played an awful lot of football and he’s going to continue to do that. He’s a very important player for us.”
Now, Hunter has plenty of company among those good hitters. In fact, Marshall’s missed tackles – a regular highlight in Holliday’s weekly press briefings – total only 47 in six games (Miami 3, Gardner-Webb 10, Ohio 7, Virginia Tech 9, UTSA 5, FAU 13). Holliday is happy anytime that number is a single digit.
Hunter said the game-winning field goal squeaker over the Owls last weekend will be a learning tool for the Herd.
“They had a very good quarterback (Jaquez Johnson), but everything Coach Heater had mapped out for us was correct,” Hunter said. “Sometimes we just didn’t execute like we should, make the tackle like we should have. That game will make us better; I really believe that.
“Coach Holliday said it’s the first time in (his) four years we won a game like that. The offense and defense really pulled together. That last quarter, we had to do it. The offense did what it had to do to get us down in field position for (Justin) Haig to kick it and win it.
“It was a rocky game, everything wasn’t executed perfectly, everything wasn’t right, but it was time to pull together and make a stop so the offense could do what had to do. And we did that.”
Hunter said the Herd proved a point to itself at FAU.
“One thing I’ve learned is when we really need it, our team will pull together and do what we need to do now,” the 6-foot, 202-pound Hunter said. “We fought hard at Virginia Tech; it just didn’t happen (a triple-overtime loss). But we know now what we have to do to get a win when it gets tough.
“Like I said, everything wasn’t perfect. The alignment wasn’t perfect. We didn’t always execute a good tackle when we needed to, or maybe we had a missed assignment, but when we needed it, everybody pulled through, fought through and battled adversity.”
The redshirt freshman from Middleton, Ohio, admits he sometimes misses his last season at linebacker, but when he makes his 19th straight start for the Herd next week at MTSU, he’ll be at his more natural position, the one he expected to play when he came to Marshall.
“I do think D.J. having played linebacker, it helps him because a lot of time at strong safety, he’s up in the box,” Holliday said. “He is a box player with certain defenses. He drops down in and plays like a linebacker, so, working there for entire year, playing that position – and playing it well – I’m sure there are some fundamentals, some technique that carries over to what he’s doing now.
“He’s making a lot of plays. We are asking him to do an awful lot of plays for us, but as a defense, we have to continue to get better, and D.J. is a big part of helping us get to where we want to go.”
Hunter wouldn’t argue with that. He’s a guy who “yes, sir’s” reporters, but is far less polite when hitting running backs and receiver.
“I’m not going to lie and say I don’t miss a little bit of the action at linebacker,” Hunter said. “But the action I do get at safety, I’ve just got to make my plays. When I get a chance, I can’t be making any mistakes.
“There’s more running back there, but other than that, it’s all right. I’m blessed to be in the position I’m in.”
What’s crucial for the Herd, with its new-found defensive depth, is it has a “strong” safety.