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BOGACZYK: Herd’s Hunt Adds Confidence to Skills at WR

Nov. 23, 2015

By JACK BOGACZYK
HERDZONE.COM COLUMNIST
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. –
Justin Hunt just about had all he needed as a Marshall wide receiver … the height, the hands, and the speed and jumping ability you’d expect a star high school hurdler to have. What had been lacking, Hunt has discovered this season.

The 6-foot-3, 203-pound junior has become a productive player for the Herd. He’s also moved into a starting role at the Z receiver spot.

So, what’s the difference in 2015 from 2013 and ’14 for the Memphis, Tenn., native?

“I changed the mental part,” Hunt said. “To me, the game is 90 percent what you think you can do, so I started believing in myself more – that I could do it – and started trusting myself more. I started trying to trust everything I do, and it just worked out for me so I’m just going to continue to do it.

“At the beginning of the season – the first game, Purdue – I got in there (with two catches for 25 yards) and my confidence started building after that. Every practice I got better and better and the opportunities started to come more in games.

“The more I played, I made the most of my opportunities, and then it was ‘just keep grinding.’”

In that opening win over the Boilermakers, Hunt made a 16-yard, first-down catch from quarterback Michael Birdsong to the Purdue 22 – leading to a Nick Smith field goal in the third quarter. Then, Marshall came from a fourth-quarter deficit as Hunt made a crucial third-down reception for a first down early on the Herd’s go-ahead drive.

As the Herd (9-2, 6-1) visits Western Kentucky (9-2, 7-0) on Friday at noon (ET) for a Conference USA East Division football title showdown and championship game berth, Hunt has made four consecutive starts at Z. He’s also working as senior Davonte Allen’s backup at the X spot.

 

 

Hunt’s 18 receptions (for 250 yards) in 2015 double his receptions total in his first two Herd seasons after starring in football and track and field at Whitehaven High in Memphis. He’s scored three of his four career touchdowns this season, too.

In 2013, he was one of only seven true freshmen to play for the Herd. In his first two seasons, most of his contributions were in special teams play.

“Justin has come a long way mentally,” Marshall third-year receivers coach Mike Furrey said. “We all knew he had the size and the skill sets to become a very productive player, but sometimes it takes players a little longer to grasp it mentally than you would like.

“He has worked his tail off. Justin knew what was holding him back, and he went after it all spring and summer and now has become a very productive player for us.”

Hunt said prodding from Furrey – a former NFL receiver for seven seasons – finally paid off when the light came on. The Herd receivers coach wanted more from Hunt than a 35-inch vertical leap – the sixth best number on Coach Doc Holliday’s 2015 team.

“Coach Furrey has pushed me every day since I’ve been here, but this summer, he pushed me more,” Hunt said. “And it finally clicked. I’m glad it clicked this year. It should have clicked last year – but I’m not going to talk about last year. But it clicked this year and I’m happy.

“I think the main reason it clicked is I wasn’t afraid to mess up this year. The last couple years I was here, I was afraid to mess up and now I’ve got more confidence, so I feel I can compete with anybody, play with anybody.

“That’s what really changed me from the player last year to the one this year, not being afraid to mess up anymore … Yeah, better late than never.”

True freshman Chase Litton, who has quarterbacked Marshall to eight wins in its last nine games, said the rangy Hunt’s emergence as a dependable target shouldn’t surprise anyone.

“He brings everything to the table,” Litton said. “His release off the ball is second to none. Not a lot of people see that, the way I see it. We knew FIU liked to press (cover) a lot and if they didn’t, they like to really shade off and run with someone.

“Well, Justin is a track guy and a tough person to run with as well. So, if he gets on top of you, or if he’s even with you, he’s leavin.’ That’s just been him. He’s a good receiver. He brings multiple aspects to the game, whether it’s speed, his size, whether it’s his hands or his capability of getting open. He brings a lot of different aspects for us.”

Hunt, 20, chose the Herd over WKU, Arkansas State and hometown Memphis after helping Whitehaven to a Class 6A state title in 2012. The following spring, he won the 100 hurdles (14.34 seconds) at the state track meet and finished third in the 300 hurdles (39.06).

“I miss track, miss running the hurdles,” Hunt said. “What I miss is winning. I didn’t really lose at all my senior year, so I miss the hurdles and winning. I miss track a lot, but it wasn’t really hard to get the track mentality out because football was my first sport I always loved.

“I just liked the track, and I was good at track – that’s why I really ran; I was good at it. If I wasn’t good at it, I wouldn’t mess with it, but I was good at track and hurdles, but it didn’t take that long to get out of that mentality.”

Hunt certainly has been part of the rebuilding of the Herd program under Holliday. The wideout has been part of three teams that are a combined 32-7, and Marshall goes to WKU with a chance to become the first team to play in three consecutive C-USA title games since the league went to divisional play following expansion and realignment in 2005.

Hunt said he’s learned plenty about the game and himself.

“The game has slowed down a lot,” he said. “It’s slowed down a whole lot for me. My IQ has gotten way better. Coach Furrey has taught me a lot of different coverages that I didn’t know, and that’s helped me. “I know the game -- how to attack it -- way better than I did. I know coverages when I see them, so I can react and go 100 percent now.”

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