Whether by default or not, Notre Dame’s undeniable No. 1 receiver entering fall camp is Torii Hunter Jr. The rising senior, healthy after injuries and primed for a breakout with a depth-chart evacuation, is now centerstage after fighting for snaps the past two seasons.
What that means remains to be seen. Most have Hunter pegged for a monster season. One listen to Brian Kelly or his offensive assistants, and you’ll likely feel the same way. Hunter has the speed to get deep, the moves to play in the slot, and the football IQ and feel for the game that made him an emergency defensive back last season.
But it’s still just a projection. His days of moonlighting are over—not just at defensive back, but on the baseball diamond at Eck Stadium. Because 2016 is about Hunter elevating his profile on the football field. He’s one of the keys to a big Notre Dame season.
TORII HUNTER JR.
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Senior, No. 16, WR
A four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American. The MVP of The Opening. Hunter chose Notre Dame in September, picking the Irish over Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
A U.S. Army-All American, Hunter broke his femur during practice the week of the game, costing him an entire season as his rehab suffered a few false starts.
Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action, recovering from injury suffered at U.S. Army All-American game.
Sophomore Season (2014): Named Notre Dame’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year. Played in 10 games, missing the opening three due to a groin injury. Had seven catches for 65 yards and a touchdown, scoring against Syracuse.
Junior Season (2015): Made 28 catches for 363 yards, scoring two touchdowns. Also carried the ball five times for a total 16 yards. Completed one of three passing attempts.
WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR
Seems pretty close, though I undersold him. I still had Prosise as a part-time slot receiver and Corey Robinson as a healthy and productive receiving option.
I’m high on Hunter, though I still put his ceiling at 20 catches. In reality, unless the Irish are an insanely productive offense, I’m just struggling to find the footballs to make Hunter happy, especially when he’s probably the fifth-best option as a pass catcher.
(That’s no insult, Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, Chris Brown and C.J. Prosise are all really good players.)
A redshirt season was a great thing for him. He’s basically a sophomore at this point, meaning there’s plenty of time for him to work his way up a depth chart that is pretty top-heavy right now.
We’ve heard about Hunter’s ability to make plays in space and be a versatile receiver. And he’s got the versatility to play inside and out, something that always helps when you’re looking for ways to get a player noticed.
New offensive coordinator Mike Sanford will likely see some of the same things this August that had Kelly and Mike Denbrock excited. It’d be even better if we saw those things happen on Saturdays this fall, instead of making most of his noise on the practice field.
There’s nobody in the way of Hunter maximizing his potential now. Combine his experience and knowledge of the offense with a fleet of young and still-learning receivers and every arrow points to a big season.
Still, some of the same challenges confront Hunter that we mentioned for Corey Holmes. Namely size and speed—a lack of size combined with very good (but not elite) speed. Again, Will Fuller can get away with being small because he’s one of the fastest football players on the planet. We’ll see if Hunter has that same ability sooner than later.
I’m not down on Hunter’s ceiling—in fact, I think he’s probably the skill player with the best chance of being named the team’s offensive player of the year (non-QB edition). But it’ll require Hunter’s explosiveness to take a jump forward, because it’s not enough to just be reliable and versatile in this offense.
I think Hunter is Notre Dame’s best bet at a 1,000 yard receiver this year. But he’ll need to prove that he’s capable of making the big play, because he’s not going to get there averaging just 13 yards a catch (he’d need 77 catches at that pace).
He showed flashes of that ability—especially getting downfield in the Blue-Gold game—this spring. And without Will Fuller to take those deep ball targets, Hunter’s speed and hands are a nice option at the X, especially if Corey Holmes is going to spend some time on the inside.
Hunter’s versatility makes him a key piece of the offensive puzzle. But after listening to Kelly this spring, it sure sounds like this is a coaching staff that wants to find a determined role for Hunter, if only to give him the opportunity to thrive.
Hunter has a fifth year of eligibility available. But Kelly made it seem as if that fifth-year might not be needed before heading to the next level. If that’s the case, expect a big season from the new No. 1.
2016’s Irish A-to-Z