By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – In his first two Marshall football seasons, Justin Hunt caught nine passes for 167 yards.
In the first game of his third season, the rangy receiver made two receptions for 25 yards … and there’s no doubt those two were much bigger than the first nine, which did include a 40-yard touchdown in 2013.
Hunt emerged in spring practice, finally showing the potential the Herd coaches saw when he helped Memphis Whitehaven High to a Tennessee 6A football state title in 2012 and won a Class AAA state crown in track and field in the 100 hurdles.
He continued to stay the course in August camp and started the season as No. 2 at X receiver behind senior Davonte Allen. In the season-opening, 41-31 win over Purdue on Sunday, Hunt made two catches that aided the Herd on scoring drives.
“It felt great to finally be in a situation like that,” Hunt said Tuesday during the Herd players’ interview session. “I just wanted to make the opportunity count. So, when I got in on that last drive and it was third down, I just said to myself, ‘I’ve got to make this play.’ And I made it.”
The aforementioned play was third-and-5 from the Herd 21 with fewer than seven minutes left and Purdue on top 31-27. Quarterback Michael Birdsong went to Hunt on the left sideline for 9 yards and a first down. Eight plays later, running back Devon Johnson scored a 6-yard touchdown with 2:50 left to cap an 84-yard drive, giving Marshall a lead it didn’t relinquish.
“A big play when we needed it,” Birdsong said of Hunt’s reception.
After Hyleck Foster’s 28-yard punt return gave Marshall a possession start at the Purdue 38, Hunt caught a 16-yarder from Birdsong on first down. Four plays later, Nick Smith booted a 32-yard field goal to bring Marshall to a 28-27 deficit.
Hunt said he didn’t worry about giving Birdsong confidence that the receiver could produce at crunch time.
“It really doesn’t take that long because we’ve been through things all summer, all through camp, so the confidence is there,” the 6-foot-3, 203-pound Hunt said. “But this was the first game, so it was kind of shaky at the beginning, but as the game got going, we connected on two balls and hopefully we’ll connect on more as the season goes along.
“It’s a start. You’ve got to start somewhere, and it’s all going to work out. Every week as the weeks go on, I think now I’m going to get more opportunity to make plays, so, I’m trying to make every play that comes my way to help us win.”
Hunt figures to get more opportunity as Marshall (1-0) goes to Ohio (1-0) on Saturday night for the “Battle of the Bell” rivalry game at Peden Stadium – where the Herd has lost in its last two trips.
“He works at it … just the way he goes about his business” Herd Coach Doc Holliday said when asked about Hunt’s emergence. “He practices extremely well. He had a great spring, if you remember, and it carried over into fall camp.
“What’s great is it has given us the opportunity to have him and Davonte on one side and we can roll those guys and that’s two really good guys. And then with (Deandre) Reaves starting to develop at outside receiver – he’s playing well – he and (Deon-Tay) McManus can split reps (at Z receiver).
“So, we’re not playing those guys 50-60 snaps. They’re fresh and we can roll them in there.”
Hunt had two catches as a true freshman in 2013, including a 40-yard TD pass from Blake Frohnapfel to close the scoring in a Herd romp at FIU. Last season, his progress was stunted.
“It was very frustrating, very much so,” Hunt said when asked of his first two college seasons. “I had a lot of injuries. I hope I just stay healthy through this season, finally.
“Hamstring, foot, knees, everything was hurting me. My first year, I guess I just wasn’t ready to play. I didn’t have that many injuries then, but last year I had a lot of different things, and the mental part of my game wasn’t there. This year, it’s a whole different story.”
Hunt, a marketing major at MU, played in 12 of the Herd’s 14 games last season for the nationally ranked Conference USA champions, but most of his work was on special teams. He didn’t catch a pass in the final seven games – and he wasn’t much available during a stretch when Allen was out and then limited following a collarbone fracture in a Week 4 win at Akron.
Allen had 13 catches for 305 yards in the Herd’s first three games, then was injured on his only reception against the Zips, a 30-yarder. Hunt saw his chance to fill in crash with his own aches and pains, but he stayed focused and seized his chance with help from receivers coach Mike Furrey.
“The biggest thing I get from Coach Furrey is route-running, and using my hands when I catch the ball,” Hunt said, whose new-found consistency in August camp included winning jump balls – a la Allen. “He says all the time, ‘Don’t catch the ball with your body.’
“He helped me out tremendously during summer and in training camp. You learn every day with him. No body catches. Route-running. Get your feet right. Catch the ball with your hands and then looking that thing in.
“The mental part, too – it’s more than the physical part. Coach Furrey teaches us, tells us that every day. You think about that. And what he says is working for me, and so I’m going to keep doing it.”
In track and field at Whitehaven – where he also was recruited by Western Kentucky, Arkansas State and hometown Memphis – Hunt was a multitalented athlete. He won the state 100 hurdles in 14.0 seconds and placed third in the 300 hurdles in 39.06 (which was .40 off his best time). He ran the 100 in 10.7 and the 400 in 49.5.
In Herd strength and conditioning testing this summer, Hunt’s 35-inch vertical jump ranked sixth on Holliday’s team.
“I hope to get a chance to jump over somebody and show my hurdling ability,” Hunt said when asked about clearing a tackler. “I haven’t yet, but I think one day it’s going to come. But you have to catch the ball first.”
He admits his first year was one of adjustment. His athleticism put him on the field on special teams, and he didn’t get a redshirt year because the Herd needed outside receivers, too.
“The biggest thing was the fast paced way of things, way faster than high school,” Hunt said of adjusting to the game at the major college level. “I had to run faster routes, get out of press man (coverage) – I didn’t see that much in high school – so everything was different. But as the season went on in my freshman year I got it down, learned the basics.
“The biggest transition from track is its way more physical, so you’ve got to have way more heart than you do in track. So, I’d tell them, if you don’t have any heart, stay with track.”
Hunt laughed when he said that to put it into context. As for his own adjustment, he’s more than No. 2 to Allen, who has gone through injuries just as Hunt has.
“He’s staying on me every day like he’s another coach,” Hunt said of his on-field mentor. “I saw him start out with a bang the first few games last year, and then unfortunately he was injured. He told me to keep my head up, keep working. There’s a plan for everybody. God has a plan for you, so just keep working.
“It’s starting to work out.”