If you attempt to keep up he’ll run by you. If you try to get in his way he’ll run around you. And in those cases you succeed in sticking close, he’ll leap over you. Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter is a 6-4, 200 lb., gazelle in pads.
There are only two players that I have studied in recent years that have the athleticism to even be mentioned stylistically within the same sentence as Randy Moss. The first his Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green, who has done enough on an NFL field to convince me that he belongs within the same stylistic tier as the all-time great vertical threat. Give Green a quarterback commensurate with his ability and the Moss-like stats will follow.
The other player is Hunter. While his potential is in the same neighborhood his play has yet to reach the same subdivision. Hunter has experienced his share of big drops this year, including a deep target against Alabama in late October. I watched two of Hunter’s games thus far – this year’s N.C. State game in Atlanta and a match up with Cincinnati – and I came away ambivalent.
In terms of ceiling, you might strain your neck trying to find were Hunter’s upside ends. However, there are basics flaws to Hunter’s game that might as well have him chained to the ground. Both Randy Moss and A.J. Green were refined talents for by rookie standards – and perhaps even by veteran standards. Even Jets receiver Stephen Hill wasn’t as raw as Hunter when I evaluated him last year. When a player like Hunter in a passing game that has a lot of pro-style tendencies is less polished than a former Georgia Tech receiver in a triple-option offensive system, it’s a concern.
Volunteers head coach Derek Dooley has a similar assessment.
“First, it has to happen with more consistency in practice. Justin has got to understand that playing receiver is not always clean and easy [and] that there’s a little grit that you have to do to get open. You’re going to have to get hit. Good receivers are going to make those kind of plays no matter what the circumstance. He’s not there yet. We all want to talk about how he’s this first-round pick and the No.1 pick in the draft and he can be that, but he has never performed to that standard in my opinion. And he knows that. So he needs to focus on his development and what does he do well, what are some things that we have got to keep building on, and how do we get there. He’s got great character, it’s important to him, and he’s got a lot of special qualities as a wide out. But being able to go produce out there week after week is what matters.”
What I hear Dooley saying is that Hunter isn’t working on the fine points of his game in practice. When it’s time to execute he makes mistakes because he hasn’t ingrained all the teachings that the Tennessee program has tried to impart on him. On some level, Hunter has been coasting on his first-round athleticism. Otherwise a head coach – especially a head coach whose father was an SEC head coach and athletic director – wouldn’t challenge his player publicly.
Hunter’s deficiencies aren’t difficult to spot. This is the first part of a series of posts about Hunter and how this fantastic talent is holding himself back from potential greatness.
Why Hunter is making the term “receiver” a bad word
This is a first-and-goal slant with 2:30 in the third quarter. Hunter is in the slot in a 1×2 receiver, 11-personnel pistol set. N.C. State has a linebacker two steps inside of Hunter and a defensive back three yards over the top of the receiver at the hash. Just before the snap, the linebacker tips his hand that he’s blitzing, which leaves Hunter one-on-one with the defensive back and a likely opening behind the linebacker inside. Both Hunter and his quarterback make this read and are on the same page as the center snaps the ball.
Hunter begins his release from the line of scrimmage with good intensity. His shoulders are over his knees and he is working downhill. A strong release is often a receiver’s best chance to set up a defender early in a route, especially a quick-hitting route like the slant.
Hunter’s first mistake comes just a few steps into his release when he tips off his break by raising his torso, which is a big indicator that he’s about to change direction.
Hunter’s body language is indicating to the defender, “don’t get into a back pedal” because I’m not running behind you. As you can see the N.C. State defensive back is a good listener to body language be he’s on his toes and waiting. You’ll see in the next step that the defensive back also knows that the slant is the most likely route that Hunter will run if his linebacker teammate is blitzing.
Hunter makes a sharp jab step to the outside to set up his inside break, but the defensive back isn’t buying the outside move at all. He plants his outside leg to time his burst inside at the exact same time as the receiver. If the defender were fooled, he would be a step behind or caught moving in the opposite direction of the break. Even a phenom’s physical advantages are diminished on short routes. It’s like the old wrestling adage that all men are the same size when they’re on the mat.
Making matters worse, Hunter’s break lacks control because he slips during the change of direction and exits the break leaning too far forward and out of position to have his hands and arms to adjust to the football. Slants are tight-window passes and expecting perfect accuracy every time is setting the bar too high, even in the pros. A receiver can help his quarterback when he’s in a position to use his back to shield the defender while turning his torso into position to catch the ball in any of the windows that the ball may arrive: ahead, on his body, or slightly behind him. Unless this throw is in front or low and away, Hunter is going to have a difficult time making a reception if the ball arrives within the next two steps of his route.
Just a step later, Hunter is still trying to regain his balance. The receiver’s poor beginning to his route renders his long arms and big hands useless unless the pass arrives at his shins about six inches off the turf. When Hunter regains his footing and his body is upright, his hands and arms are the last – and most important – parts of his body to get in position to catch the football.
Hunter’s hands are far apart and one is palm-side up while the other is palm-side down. If this were the only play I planned to show I’d be cherry-picking my analysis, but I’m going to show this poor hand positioning on two other plays where he has no excuse to demonstrate more technique and polish as a pass catcher. The biggest takeaway from this play is Hunter’s body position before and after his break that telegraphs his intentions to the covering defender and hamstrings his balance when changing direction, which makes his route running inefficient and detracts from his one goal: catching the football.
Hunter manages to pull it together and get his hands close enough that they are in a position to catch an oncoming pass. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Hunter’s hand position isn’t optimal for catching a pass. If this pass were to arrive below the waist, Hunter’s palms-up technique is the proper way to field the ball. This pass arrives just above his waist and behind him and it would be better if he attempts to field this ball with his palms down and his fingers pointing skyward.
The reason has more to do with the ball arriving behind him and the location of the defender rather than the height of the arriving pass. Think of your hand position when you are taking an option and receiving it. A palms-up position in this situation is a passive attempt to catch a pass – it’s “receiving,” in the literal sense. A receiver with his palms up is waiting for the ball to come to him. If I were a coach, one of the little things I’d insist on doing is renaming the position from “receiver,” to “snatcher.” The natural hand position for actively taking an object is with the palms down (or at least sideways) and to amp that action to the level of aggression that I would want from my pass catchers “taking” would evolve to “snatching.” It’s all about ingraining an attitude with a team.
Hunter’s technique flaw comes into focus as the ball arrives. It’s far more difficult for a receiver to extend his arms and catch the ball because his hands aren’t in position to generate the widest possible surface area to control the ball. From a visual perspective, Hunter’s hands are like a landing strip when they need to be a spider web.
This pass requires an aggressive response and there’s no way Hunter can extend his arms to the first available window with his arms in this position to take the football away from his opponent. As the ball arrives, the defender extends his outside arm across Hunter’s chest. If Hunter had his arms extended with his palms up, the defender would have to interfere with Hunter to reach the oncoming pass.
Even if the official doesn’t call a penalty on the defender, Hunter still has a fighting catch to catch the football because his arms will be over the defender’s and his hands will reach the ball first. The defender will have a more difficult time ripping the ball loose with an upward motion than he does with a downward thrust. Hunter would have been in position to lift the ball away unimpeded. That’s the difference between “receiving” and “snatching,” and why hands technique is so important in tight quarters.
Part II: More examples of correctable technique flaws that are holding back Hunter from his vast potential.
For more analysis of skill players entering the NFL, download the 2012 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 RSP at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. The 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio will be available for download here on April 1, 2013.