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Herd's Hunter makes smooth switch to linebacker

HUNTINGTON - Keith Baxter says he called the shot on the evolution of D.J. Hunter, Marshall's promising safety turned linebacker.

"He might not remember, but I told him it was coming," said Baxter, one of the Thundering Herd's top cornerbacks. "I knew it was coming because you've got to get your best 11 on the field, and that's what Coach Rip [defensive coordinator Chris Rippon] always says. So why would you have a talented guy sitting back, not getting much playing time, when you can insert him somewhere and he can be a playmaker?"

Defensive end Alex Bazzie saw it the same way, but he just wasn't sure it would happen. He said he even dropped hints with the coaching staff.

"I was surprised that they actually did it," Bazzie said of Hunter's second-game move to linebacker. "I kept telling them D.J.'s a strong kid. He's kind of small but he's a strong kid. And I'd always tell him, 'Man, you should be playing in the box, man.' I always joke around and he's like, 'Nah, nah, I like it back there at safety.'

"But when it actually happened, I was just shocked, like 'coaches finally did it.' "

That "finally" came before the second game against Western Carolina, after Hunter began the season in a more limited role of nickel back. His expected role at starting safety was altered by the single-year transfer of former Boston College starters Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha.

From a traditionalist's perspective, it was a daring move by coach Doc Holliday and Rippon. Hunter brings more speed to the linebacking corps, to be sure, but does so with a frame listed as 6-foot, 204 pounds.

The idea, certainly, was to get the 11 best on the field, and there is little dispute that Hunter is one of those 11 on the defensive side. And for many Conference USA opponents - probably five of the final six on MU's schedule - speed is a larger consideration than size.

Playing on the strong side, Hunter is the Herd's third-leading tackler in the five games since Marshall's loss at West Virginia. The Middletown, Ohio, native has 38 tackles in that stretch, only behind LeGrande (56) and Okoroha (54). Of those 38, 17 were solo.

Against Tulsa, he also returned a mishandled point-after snap for two points.

Hunter was not one of the Herd players appearing for Monday interviews, but several of his defensive mates were, and all gave good reports.

From Baxter: "I think he's picking it up really well, not being able to play last year and the year before. He's coming in learning a new position; he's been learning safety since he's been here and I think he's picked it up nicely and adjusting really well."

From cornerback Derrick Thomas, formerly from Penn State: "I definitely like having D.J. on my side. D.J. is one of the better tacklers on the team, coming down from safety. He's one of the most athletic people at that position. If he can put on some or weight physically, that can be a good fit for him."

From middle linebacker Jermaine Holmes: "Coming from safety, taking on the O-line, they've got a few more pounds than him. He's playing really good, though. I know they underestimate him, but he's playing well."

Bazzie, who calls Hunter a "Tasmanian devil," had the most to say about Hunter. OK, so Bazzie has the most to say on many subjects, but hear him out on Hunter's crash-course development.

"One thing I remember I had to tell him was, 'I know you switched positions and you don't know a lot that's going on when you get the call sometimes, but I do know one thing about you: You go full speed,' " Bazzie said. " 'And when you go full speed, you play well.'

"Instead of worrying, he'll come up to me and say, 'Bro, I didn't even know the last play.' And I'm like, 'Man, did you go 100 percent?' He said, 'Yeah, I got the tackle.' I said, 'At least Coach will coach you up on what you're supposed to do, instead of yell at you for missing a tackle and not doing what you're supposed to do.'

"We just started laughing."

Suffice it to say, Hunter will spend the rest of the season picking up the nuances of the position. He may even switch back to safety after LeGrande and Okoroha depart.

But as the Herd enters the season's second half after a bye this week, Hunter will play a substantial role in the defense's improvement, or lack thereof. He has his teammates' confidence.

"I think he came a long way with switching positions two times and just having a lot on his mind, technique-wise and what to do, and wanting to help out the team. He's coming along fast," Bazzie said.

Marshall returns to action Oct. 20 at Southern Mississippi.

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.

 


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