Aug 23, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON - Asked about the Cincinnati Reds, Marshall strong safety D.J. Hunter said of his favorite baseball team: "I'm just ready to see them go to the World Series."
Well, that's not quite a prediction and the third-place Reds might make the Fall Classic, but there is one thing Hunter is more certain about than a Reds' October.
"This," he said of the Herd, "is a really good football team now."
The redshirt sophomore from Middletown, Ohio, is ready to open the season next Saturday, when a team that's close to home for Hunter - Miami of Ohio is located only 18 miles from Middletown - comes to Edwards Stadium for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
Marshall will be wearing uniform jerseys with no names on the back - a "team" concept announced Thursday by Coach Doc Holliday, and the first time the Herd won't have names on jerseys since the 1991 NCAA Division I-AA semifinals - but Hunter already has made a name for himself.
He was a Freshman All-America pick last season (Sporting News), and his 102 tackles was tied for second among freshmen nationally. He's the top returning tackler from a struggling 2012 Herd defense, when he was an outside linebacker.
It's different now, he says, as the 6-foot, 202-pound Hunter has returned to his original MU position, one he left last season as Holliday had two safeties (Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha) who were graduate transfers from Boston College, and the Herd coach shifted Hunter "to get our best 11 on the field."
Hunter didn't even start last season's opener at West Virginia, since he was backing up the BC duo. It didn't take him long at LB, however, to establish that he was a force on a defense.
Hunter figures the Herd doesn't have to worry about "best 11" in 2013. He's part of a retooled defense under new coordinator Chuck Heater that has about 12-15 quality additions that will play regularly.
"We're three deep at some positions," Hunter said after a recent Herd practice. "There's more depth, more talent, but the big thing is Coach Heater and what he's giving us.
"I really think we've improved a lot. We've just got to hone in and listen to everything Coach Heater has to say. He's a great coach; he isn't going to tell us wrong. We've got to soak it in, take the coaching Ã¢â'¬Â¦ It's just like with a parent. Sometimes you've got to listen. And we've got to listen.
"He's been everywhere. He's won a national championship -- more than one -- put players in the NFL, coached All-Americans, everything. Marshall is fortunate to have him. We just need to listen to him and go play. If we play with the kind of passion he has for coaching, we'll be just fine."
In August camp, a defense that has gone from zone to man principles has tested the high-powered, chains-moving Herd offense much more than a year ago, when quarterback Rakeem Cato and backup Blake Frohnapfel seemed to complete passes almost at will.
Now, MU's stoppers are much more adept against the run and are consistently taking away MU's outside air game.
"It's about playing man-to-man," Cato said of Hunter and his mates. "They're bracketing us, limiting us to certain things we have to do, but really it's helping us on offense, too, as far as quarterbacks getting the ball to the wideouts. There are much smaller windows for us to throw to."
Hunter remembers last August, when the offense regularly enjoyed taunting the defense in practice matchups. Now, that same offense is feeling some frustration.
"I mean, I don't think it really makes them too mad, because we're all a team," Hunter said. "We all want to be together. It isn't defense. It isn't offense. We're a team. We're Marshall University on game day."
Hunter started naming names, and figures Marshall could roll in and out more than 25 players regularly on defense this season.
"Last year we just didn't have much depth," said Hunter, who figures to be one of the Herd's defensive leaders. "This year we do have a lot of depth and we have a lot of newcomers who are going to make a difference. There's more competition and that makes you better.
We've got some ballers back who were hurt, like "Swag D" - excuse me, Darryl Roberts - and A.J. Leggett. We've got new additions in the secondary like (free safety) Taj Letman, Corey Tindal at nickel. We've got new additions at linebacker, and guys like Evan McKelvey, Raheem Waiters are back healthy.
"They don't need me at linebacker anymore. There's a lot of depth at linebacker, and some really good dudes in that room."
Hunter remembers the frustrations of a 5-7 finish last season, a year in which the Herd allowed 45 or more points in six games.
"There was one game we only had four linebackers," Hunter said. "One game, we only had three corners. It isn't like that anymore.
"Now, if you take one guy out, we've got a great one coming in. Coach Heater thinks we can get a four-man rotation everywhere."
And that, to Hunter and his Herd, is much more important than the Reds' five-man rotation.