HUNTINGTON — D.J. Hunter has become used to change in his Marshall football career.
Since he first took the field for the Thundering Herd in 2012, he’s gone from strong safety to outside linebacker back to strong safety and, this spring, back to outside linebacker. The look is familiar, and it’s the position where he gained his greatest success, but Hunter wants to look ahead to his future at the position, not behind to his past glory.
“I’m embracing it and doing what I’ve got to do for my team,” Hunter said. “That freshman All-American stuff, that’s in the past, and you can’t live in the past and live off old stuff. I’m just trying to get better and do what I’ve got to do this year. I’m still competing for a job, every day.”
He got his first taste of his current job in the second game of his Marshall career. When the Herd took the field versus Western Carolina in 2012, Hunter went from backup strong safety behind starter Dominick LeGrande to starting strong-side linebacker, vaulting Raheem Waiters. He started the season’s final 11 games, was one of three triple-digit tacklers (102 tackles, 3.5 for a loss) and was named to both the Conference USA all-freshman team and Sporting News Freshman All-America team.
After LeGrande graduated, Hunter moved back to strong safety and began 2013 as the starter. He didn’t finish the season in the starting lineup, though, watching Tiquan Lang take over that spot for the final seven games. Hunter finished last season with 50 tackles, 1.5 for a loss.
Yet Marshall coach Doc Holliday felt Hunter was too talented to keep off the field. When the Herd released its pre-spring depth chart, the rising redshirt junior had returned to starting strong-side linebacker.
That position rarely saw the field when the defense first took it last season. Of Marshall’s 14 games, they began with three linebackers in only two — versus the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Tulsa. In the rest, Marshall began in a nickel package with Corey Tindal as the fifth defensive back.
Hunter’s move back to linebacker could give Herd defensive coordinator Chuck Heater the opportunity to play three linebackers more often, and Hunter’s strong safety experience is a big part of that. Because of Hunter’s ability to play in open space, the Herd essentially could use him as a fifth defensive back and move Tindal from nickel to corner.
“I think he’s done a really good job,” Holliday said of Hunter. “I think the other thing he’s done is provide Chuck a little more flexibility. He’s been able to play a little bit more base in our defense and still get our nickel blitzes out of base, because he’s athletic enough to do that.
“He’s done a tremendous job there,” Holliday said. “He’s been very active and he’s made a lot of plays.”
It’s an old position for Hunter, but a new coach. The last time he played linebacker, it was former defensive coordinator Chris Rippon teaching the position. This time, it’s linebackers coach Adam Fuller, and Hunter said he’s paying close attention to the nuances of the position, to advance past relying mostly on his athleticism the first time around.
“This time around, I’m trying to take as much coaching as possible,” Hunter said. “Not just play off talent, but off technique. Whatever Coach Fuller has me do, I’m just trying to do that and get better, whether that’s tackle, breaking down, running to the ball, whatever it is.
“You’ve got to have a little more technique,” Hunter added. “There’s a lot of guys out there that are athletic, but technique is going to get you where you’ve got to go.”
And while Hunter has returned to the starting lineup, he knows first-hand that role isn’t a given. Just as he saw Lang become Marshall’s starting strong safety last season, he understands the competition he’ll face this spring with Riverside High graduate Waiters. Hunter would rather history not repeat itself in that way.
“He’s a baller, now,” Hunter said. “He’s a missile. That boy’s got a motor. So I can’t slack off any day. I have to go hard every day.”
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.