Nov. 2, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – For some of the varied issues Marshall has had on defense this football season, there is one decision or move that shouldn’t be questioned.
It’s at strongside linebacker.
After an opening loss at nationally-ranked West Virginia, Thundering Herd defensive coordinator Chris Rippon moved D.J. Hunter from a backup strong safety spot to the starter at strongside linebacker. The decision seemed to be a simple one:
“We wanted to get our best players on the field, and D.J. is one of our best 11,” Rippon said then.
The proof has been in the putting of the Middletown, Ohio, product on the second line of the unit, where Hunter admits, “I never thought I’d be a linebacker.”
After three years out of the game, the redshirt freshman has made 59 of his 61 tackles since he became a starter at linebacker. He followed up an 11-tackle game in a win at Southern Miss with 10 stops in last Saturday’s loss to UCF.
With Memphis (1-7, 1-3) visiting Edwards Stadium on Saturday at 2 p.m. and the Herd (3-5, 2-2) in a bowl-seeking mode to salvage the season with a third straight strong November under Coach Doc Holliday, Hunter says he’s still learning.
“After every game, I’m more comfortable because I’ve learned something else,” said the 200-pound Hunter, who runs a 4.39 in the 40. “And since I’m more comfortable, the game speed slows down, and you just get more into what you’re doing, what you need to do.
“I’m not the biggest guy out there (5 feet 10). The hardest part is playing the run gaps. The easiest part is where you’re closer to the line and you don’t have to give that much wiggle room to make ‘em miss.
“They – the offensive linemen – can’t get me, can’t catch up to me, in the open field. What they try to do is get you with the cut (block). You’ve just got to be aware of that and avoid that, and then you can go make a play.”
Hunter said he’s adapted to the position because in one way, it’s no different than strong safety – or at least the way he plays it.
“You need to get to the ball to make a tackle,” he said.
His height has at times been a matter to cope with more than what would seem to be a lack of weight for his position.
“Sometimes it can be difficult because I’m not that tall, and sometimes I can’t see over the (Herd defensive) line,” he said. “That may be the hardest thing, so sometimes I got to tell J.T. (6-4 defensive end Jeremiah Taylor) to get down for me a little bit so I can see the course of the ball, so I can run to it. Other than that, really, that’s about it.”
Holliday says Hunter’s aggressive style of play is not only productive, but also an example to his teammates. The linebacker does play like he really missed the game in those years he wasn’t on the field. And when the Herd returned to practice after the UCF loss, that kind of attitude was crucial.
“For me, I try to go 100 miles per hour every play, run to the ball,” Hunter said. “My feeling has always been that you practice how you play, so you got to shake that loss off. It was a bad loss, but we’ve got another game to play.
“It wasn’t close, and the two (Quincy McDuffie) kickoff returns killed us, and we blew some assignments when 28 (UCF back Latavius Murray) got big yardage. The close games we’ve lost hurt more to me personally, I think, because we should have won the close games, but we didn’t.
“That’s what burns, those games, because when you lose by seven (points) or three, you know you could have won. But we didn’t. We lost, and you can’t go back.”
The Herd needs to finish 3-1 to get a bowl bid in Conference USA, where only three teams enter the weekend with winning records. Hunter said that kind of finish isn’t good enough.
“We still have a chance to go to a bowl,” he said. “With four more games left, we can win seven games. We won seven last year (7-6); we still can win seven, get to eight if we can go to a bowl and win so I think we’re still OK. We haven’t given up yet, and we’re not going to give up.
“We’re not putting our heads down. We’re still going to be fine, because we know a bowl game is still out there. We’ve got to stay in the moment. We’ve got to finish. No excuses now. No more.”