When Notre Dame had to play the first half against Pitt without starting safety Max Redfield, Notre Dame shuffled nickel back Matthias Farley to safety and gave wide receiver Torii Hunter most of the snaps at nickel in his absence. With Redfield being sent home on Tuesday from the Fiesta Bowl, will the junior wide receiver see an expanded defensive role once again?
Hunter had been cross training at nickel throughout the season although it wasn’t reported at the time. When the Irish lost Redfield against Pitt because of that awful targeting call the week before, we saw Hunter’s debut on defense over corners like Nick Watkins and Nick Coleman who hadn’t trained at the nickel. With Watkins filling in for the injured Devin Butler who was filling in for the injured Keivarae Russell, Notre Dame’s only options at the nickel appear to be Coleman and Hunter.
Hunter drew a lot of praise in the summer for his work on offense and started to make his mark in the Irish passing attack, but at this point still isn’t a vital cog. He caught 24 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns this season. Solid numbers, but only good enough to be the fourth most productive wide receiver for the Irish behind Will Fuller, Chris Brown, and Amir Carlisle. All three of those wide receivers are available for the Irish on Friday so it would only make sense if we saw #16 on the field trying to contain the Buckeyes passing attack more than we see him trying to haul in passes from Deshone Kizer.
When Hunter played the nickel spot against Pitt he wasn’t completely held off the field on offense. Against the Panthers Hunter hauled in one of his two receiving touchdowns on the season so even if we see Hunter line up more on defense against Ohio State, it’s likely we would still see him on offense as well unless the staff is ready to five freshman CJ Sanders some snaps at the slot position behind Amir Carlisle.
How and where Hunter plays in the Fiesta Bowl could end up determining the role he has permanently in 2016. Notre Dame will be losing Farley and potentially Russell from the secondary. If Hunter plays the nickel spot and plays well, would Notre Dame consider keeping him on defense? Notre Dame will have projected 2105 starting nickel back Shaun Crawford back in 2016, but if the Irish were to lose multiple members of the secondary and Hunter excels on defense, perhaps we see him stay there moving forward.
At the same time, Notre Dame could be replacing all three starting wide receivers in 2016 if Will Fuller decides to leave for the NFL following the Fiesta Bowl. Fuller has reportedly received his NFL evaluation but hasn’t revealed what it said just yet. He will meet with Brian Kelly after the bowl game to discuss his future. Should that happen, Hunter most likely would stay on the offensive side of the ball regardless of how well he plays on defense.
The 2016 season, however is a long ways away at this point. How Hunter can help the Irish upset Ohio State in the wake of losing half of its starting secondary this week is the more pressing issue. Brian Kelly knows what’s on the line for the Irish in this game – even with it not being a playoff game – and will likely do whatever it takes to come out with a W. Playing Hunter on the defensive side of the ball more than he has in his career could be one of those things.