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Derek Redd: Move back to safety is exciting for Herd's Hunter

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When The Sporting News rolled out its Freshman All-America team, Marshall's D.J. Hunter was on the list.

That should be no surprise, considering that in his first year with the Thundering Herd, he totaled a whopping 102 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups.

Funny thing about that honor, though. Look down that roster of the magazine's top freshmen in the country, and Hunter is there as a defensive back ... a position at which he played all of one game in 2012.

Was it a typo? An oversight?

Or was it ESP?

Hunter is back on the field this spring and back at his old strong safety position, a spot he feels is more natural and a spot that will keep him on the field in any scenario.

With new coordinator Chuck Heater at the helm of the defense, Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said the packages will be a little different this season than they were last season under former coordinator Chris Rippon. Fans will see more five- and six-defensive-back sets in Heater's defense, which means linebackers will head to the sideline.

"When you do that, you don't want D.J. sitting on the bench watching," Holliday said. "You want him in there playing. At that safety position, he won't come out."

He rarely came out of games last season, starting 11 of the 12 he played. He came off the bench as a strong safety at West Virginia, as the Herd started Raheem Waiters at strong side linebacker. One week later, Hunter usurped Waiters as the top man on the strong side and stayed there the rest of the season.

Marshall coaches had to fill two big holes in the Herd's secondary this offseason, as last year's starters at strong safety and free safety - Boston College transfers Dominick LeGrande and Okechukwu Okoroha - both graduated.

That left Marshall without its top two tacklers in 2012. Hunter was third on that list, and Holliday often talks about putting the best 11 players in the starting lineup. So Hunter, standing 6 feet and growing from 204 pounds last season to 207 pounds this spring, slid back into his old role.

Hunter said he tried to play the strong side like a strong safety last season, so there isn't a ton of rust to knock off in terms of remembering how to be a defensive back. He'll get refresher courses on how to play deep and get back into zones. It helps that his new coordinator also is his secondary coach.

"Coach Heater is a good coach. You've seen that he's coached the best. He's been everywhere. He was at Florida when they won a national championship. Whatever he's got to say, I'm going to listen, fix the things I need to work on and try to get better every day."

Hunter will spend the spring improving his coverage skills - "Going against Tommy Shuler every day, you've just got to get better," he said - as well as his tackling. He doesn't see a huge difference between strong side linebacker and strong safety, mainly that a safety plays a little farther away from the ball. Holliday said the skills Hunter learned at linebacker won't totally go to waste.

"It's going to help him as far as his physicalness is concerned," Holliday said. "He's still a linebacker at times when you watch out there. He's got strong safety beside his name, but he's going to get dropped down into that box quite a bit and play the same thing he played a year ago. That experience he had playing in the box is going to be valuable because he'll be there at times this year."

Hunter is happy to return to an old role. He's willing to play wherever he's needed, but feels more comfortable as a strong safety.

"I'll do whatever they ask me, for real," he said. "But in my heart, I wanted to go back to safety. I was fine with it whenever they asked me to go back."

The Herd defense seems fine with the switch, too. And the folks at The Sporting News? They should go grab a Powerball ticket.

Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at derek.redd@dailymail.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.


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