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December 16, 2013

Hunter on fast track for Irish

Torii Hunter, Jr., Notre Dame’s freshman wide receiver, hesitates when asked if he’s 100 percent healthy since suffering a freakish, non-contact leg injury at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio a little more than 11 months ago.

“I’m sure there’s some strengthening that I missed out on for those (11) months that I have to gain back,” said Hunter following Friday’s 93rd Notre Dame Football Awards Ceremony, where he was named Notre Dame’s Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year.

“With the strengthening I’ve done, I feel like I’m getting there. I don’t know if I’m quite there, but I’m getting there.”

Some swear he’s already arrived. When asking the Irish upperclassmen which of the young players in the program will make a significant impact in the coming years, the son of Torii Hunter, Sr., a long-time Major League Baseball outfielder, inevitably is the name on the tip of his teammates’ tongues.

“He’s going to be a phenomenal player just because of his work ethic alone,” said cornerback/tri-captain Bennett Jackson. “He’s got a great amount of talent. Him being on the offensive scout team, he’s probably the one that stands out the most, probably by a wide margin.”

Even Brian Kelly can’t help but provide an understated but cryptic review.

“He’s a good kid. He’s a pretty good player. That’s all I’ll tell you,” Kelly said. “He hasn’t caught a pass, he hasn’t caught a touchdown (pass), but you’re going to be talking about him. He’s a pretty good player.”

According to Kelly’s two-sport rule, once a player has established himself in the sport for which he’s on scholarship, then they’ll work out an arrangement to share the student-athlete with another sport. Hunter doubles, not surprisingly, as an outfield prospect for Mik Aoki’s Irish baseball squad.

Based upon the early reviews, Hunter should be a two-sport athlete very soon.

“I don’t know if he can hit or anything like that,” Kelly said. “I don’t know if he can steal bases or catch fly balls, but he can play football.”

Right now, Hunter is trying to get back where he was when he planted his foot to make a cut on the San Antonio practice field in January and experienced the agony of a broken femur. The recovery time was slow.

According to Hunter, the bone on the inside healed at a typical rate. The healing on the outside of the bone lagged much further behind, thus eliminating any chance of his participation for the Irish in 2013. But as the season progressed, Hunter’s leg began to respond and his level of productivity on the practice field increased.

“At first, I wasn’t really doing a lot of contact drills,” said Hunter of the start of the 2013 campaign. “As the season has progressed, I’ve been more involved in contact drills, more hitting drills. I’m starting to gain my confidence back.”

Hunter said there was a fairly high degree of tentativeness in August because of the uncertainty following the devastating injury as well as the competition on the Irish practice field.

“I was nervous the first couple of weeks because I hadn’t been on the field in nine months, or however long it was,” Hunter said. “Going against KeiVarae (Russell), he was a freshman All-American (in 2012), so I was like, ‘All right, man, I’m just a little kid coming off an injury from high school. I’m weighing about 170…’

“But after going against him for a couple of weeks, I started to get my confidence back and my wiggles back. I just started challenging him and he started challenging me to make sure we were better.”

Another Irish player who has noticed Hunter’s effectiveness is one who should recognize young talent when he sees it. From Day One, Notre Dame’s 2013 MVP - wideout/tri-captain TJ Jones - put himself in position to make an early contribution. According to Jones, Hunter has an unmistakable air about him.

“Torii Hunter has for sure gotten my attention,” Jones said. “He’s going to be something special. He has a lot of raw talent and once he gets back to full strength after his injury, it’s going to be something good.

“He’s quick at the line, knows how to stutter, release, get off press-man, he can run, he runs great routes and he has great hands.”

Despite the rave reviews, make no mistake, Hunter’s rookie season has been no joy ride. In addition to dealing with the physical test of bouncing back from a serious leg injury, he had to watch from the sideline where classmates/fellow wideouts Corey Robinson, James Onwualu and Will Fuller all made contributions during their first season on campus.

“That was definitely the hardest part coming from high school where you’re getting all the playing time to sitting on the sideline, watching your season go by,” Hunter said. “But you find your role on the team, and my role was scout team offense and to give the defense the best look possible. I just took it and ran with it.”

Hunter says he never took his scout team assignment as drudgery or a waste of his time.

“I’m giving them the best look possible,” Hunter said. “They always assign me as one of the opponent’s best receivers. I’ll study the film and see how they play, and then I’ll go out there and play to the best of my ability. The scout team may be something other people dread. I took it as an opportunity to get better and go against a starting defense.”

Hunter has learned his work ethic from his 38-year-old father, who just completed his 17th season in the big leagues where he has 2,170 hits, 314 home runs and 189 stolen bases. In the last two seasons, one with the Los Angeles Angels and the other with the Detroit Tigers, Hunter Sr., has hit .313 and .304 respectively.

“Whatever he’s done, he’s always had a passion and love for the game,” Hunter said. “He’s rubbed off on me. Everything that I do as far as football, baseball, academics, or whatever, you’ve got to hit it hard and take it head-on. You’ve got to have a drive and a passion to be the best, and he’s always had that and instilled it in me.

“My dad is 38 and he’s still going strong. He looks like a little kid out there. He works harder than anybody I know during the off-season. People don’t get to see it, but he gets up early in the morning, watches his weight, eats right…it’s definitely rubbing off.”

Hunter applies his faith when adversity strikes.

“We’re a faith-based family. We’re strong in our faith,” Hunter said. “My dad always tells me to look to God for understanding of why it happened, and that’s basically what I did. I found that I could be a testament to other people that will go through this. I could tell them how I got through this by staying strong and praying.”

Due to the significance of his injury, Hunter didn’t have a prayer to contribute on game day in 2013. But his time to shine appears just around the corner.

“I haven’t really been with the offense,” Hunter said. “Coach (Mike) Denbrock tells me to keep progressing. I’ve still got some work to do. I’ll probably move around a lot. I feel like I can play multiple positions, more like TJ played this year.”

One star on the way out the door; another ready to shine? Proof may be just around the corner.

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