Justin Hunter: Focus is a Skill

Justin Hunter by BamaKodaker

Justin Hunter by BamaKodaker

Much is expected of the great football prospect. Especially when one of them is a rising junior with the NFL-ready physique, the athleticism, and the budding technical skill to win battles with NFL defensive backs like Eric Berry during summer workouts. Potential like that is seductive to anyone who watches it.

More than anything, potential is a weighty promise measured in emotional tonnage. It can crush dreams if placed in the wrong spot. For every prospect who fulfills his potential there are dozens flattened by its pressure. It’s the idea of ‘promise’ and the path a player must take to transform potential into performance that fascinates me most about evaluating football players.

Many presume that it’s easier to be a top-notch prospect rather than the underdog player below the national radar, but I think it depends on the makeup of the athlete and his environment. When it comes to earning more opportunities, the player loaded with potential gets at least one to two extra football lives as a professional. There’s more patience because there’s more money invested. There’s more money invested because the player demonstrated something early in his career that earned lofty expectations. Sometimes that ‘something’ is purely physical.

At the same time there are a variety of distractions, pressure, and criticism from every angle for the player with immense promise. And it’s all delivered to a prospect’s door with an intensity that can wither the passion and confidence of even the best athletes. Charles Rogers. Jamarcus Russell. Laurence Maroney. And for a brief period of time, Ricky Williams.

Justin Hunter has the potential and opportunity to become a great NFL player. When the wide receiver from Tennessee is not thinking and he’s just playing, his feats of pass-catching and ball-carrying remind me of Randy Moss. Hunter’s junior year has been filled with miscues and it reflects a difficult phase of development that weighty expectations compounds.

Most athletes go through this phase at some point as they transition to a higher level of performance. We just don’t always see it because some are doing that hard part of growing during practice. Those that don’t are forced to do more thinking on the field than they should and it slows down their actions and leads to miscues.

The one skill above all others that Hunter has to refine isn’t physical in nature. It’s perhaps the greatest obstacle Hunter has before him if he wants to elevate his game from a great prospect to a great player. That skill is focus – a definable behavior that allows a player to eliminate distractions, pressure, and criticism both on and off the field and execute to the best of his ability.

One of my favorite football players of all time defines focus: former NFL linebacker Chris Spielman. He embodies it to the point of laser intensity. In his NFL Films’ story, An NFL Life, Spielman recounts how he would clear out a meeting room late at night, and with a wide-end zone copy of his opponent’s game film, he would work through his calls, his steps, and his reactions to opponent tendencies.

Spielman would play the game three times in these solitary, late-night film sessions before ever taking the field. Once the game was underway he was just reacting to what he saw. It allowed him to throw his body around with abandon and play without thinking. There’s a Zen to any skill once thought doesn’t get in the way. Spielman knew this as a football player. Peyton Manning is no different. Read Dan Shonka’s account of a young Manning honing his drops late at night in an empty University of Tennessee weight room.

There’s a point with high-level performance in any field where the importance of physical skill peaks and the mental and emotional approach becomes most vital. Based on what I’ve seen from Hunter, the Tennessee receiver is a far more talented athlete than Spielman could have ever hoped. But the Tennessee receiver needs to cultivate the mental-emotional focus that Spielman had in abundance. Developing focus is that starting point for increasing discipline, persistence, and consistency and its these traits that will help him become a great pro.

In the first post of this series, I characterized the Volunteers receiver as a super-freak athlete with aspects of his game that are raw. His head coach Derek Dooley has a similar assessment and challenged Hunter in the media to get better.

“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 lacks focus to accompany 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 second part of a series of posts about Hunter and how this fantastic talent is holding himself back from potential greatness. The first two examples are about hand position and making a proactive attempt to catch the football. The third highlight is a situation where Hunter needs to demonstrate that consistent grit to make plays after contact that separate NFL-caliber athletes from NFL receivers. These errors all lead back to a lack of focus.

Hand Position Part II

I analyzed Hunter’s drop of a slant in the red zone in the previous post. Here’s a quick shot of Hunter with similar hand position on an incoming pass thrown at chest level. Once again, Hunter’s hands are palms up and extending for the ball. This hand position is a naturally passive way to catch a football. He’s “receiving” rather than “taking.”

Hunter needs to extend his arms with his palms facing the ball and have his fingers pointing skyward. He should be making the shape of a web rather than a landing strip. This is one of the reasons why on this fourth-and-4 target in the fourth quarter that should have resulted in a first down, the ball (circled in black) flies between his arms and bounces of his chest .

Gaining Comfort with the Proper Technique

Here’s an example of a play where Hunter uses the technique I recommended for the play above. Hunter begins the play split wide right of the formation with 8:30 in the third quarter on a third-and-10 pass from a 2×2-receiver, 10-personnel shotgun set. His job is to run an intermediate cross.

Hunter drives off the line with good pad level and acceleration to get the defender on his heels before he break inside. He does this consistently as a route runner and I like the intensity that he begins his routes. With his size and speed he should always be able to put an opponent on his heels at the beginning of the play. On this play, Hunter is smoother with his turn than the route that I profiled in the previous post where he slipped. Staying balanced allows Hunter to keep his hands in a position high enough to extend towards the ball.

As the ball arrives, Hunter extends for the ball with his palms outward and fingers up.

Hunter makes the reception as the ball arrives, but there’s a slight hitch in the giddy-up because the receiver fights the ball. The Tennessee receiver doesn’t finish looking the ball into his hands before he turns his eyes down field to run and the photo below shows his left hand is still working to get a firm grasp on the ball after it made initial contact with both hands. If Hunter were hit while trying to secure the ball on this double-catch there’s a greater chance he drops the pass.

As with many examinations of a single play, it doesn’t necessarily mean Hunter has bad hands. It is representative of several receptions where I have seen him double-clutch the ball. I think it’s a sign that he needs more work as a pass catcher. He is still gaining comfort with this catching technique. Based on his coach’s comments, this is probably one of the techniques that Hunter needs to devote more practice time. More study of Hunter to come will help me confirm this assertion, but I have to believe that he has been more accustomed to trapping the ball to his body earlier in his career and he’s still thinking when extending his arms for chest-high passes. It’s as if he’s trying to undo an ingrained bad habit with his hand placement on passes with this specific location to his body.

Receptions vs. Contact

This is a second-and-9 post route with 11:00 left in the game from a 21-personnel, 1×1 receiver, offset I-formation. Hunter is the far side receiver in the frame. The cornerback covering Hunter is playing eight yards off the line of scrimmage.

After the snap, Hunter drives off the line of scrimmage with his release. His shoulders are over his knees and he’s working hard to accelerate so he can eat into the corner’s cushion.

As Hunter works down field, he does a nice job of setting up the post.

Hunter widens his release outside to force the corner to turn his hips towards the sideline. This is done to set up the break to the middle of the field. Also note that the quarterback is looking to his left as he makes his drop, which holds the safety in position. This increases the chance for Hunter to have a one-on-one moment with the corner throughout the route.

After the quarterback releases the pass down field, Hunter has earned a solid step of separation from the cornerback after he breaks to the post.

Even with the defender giving Hunter eight yards of cushion, the Volunteers receiver earns a step by the time he has sprinted 25 yards from the line of scrimmage – pretty good acceleration for a player his size in his first game since a season-ending knee injury. The widening of the route and break inside combined with his speed is all good stuff. To get a closer look, here’s the end zone angle of this play.

This view illustrates the separation Hunter has against the coverage with no safety in the area thanks to quarterback Tyler Bray’s initial look to the left and the N.C. State coverage scheme. Bray could have done a better job of leading Hunter to the middle of the field to enhance the receiver’s separation on this play. This point will become more evident in the frames below, but it’s still far from a poor throw. The pass is accurate and Hunter is in position to make the catch.

Hunter has his back to the defender and turns his body just enough that the defender has no shot of cutting off the pass as it arrives to the receiver in stride. Gaining position with one’s back to the defender is the most important aspect of winning the football on a vertical route. It doesn’t matter how fast a receiver runs the 40 if he succeeds in having his back to the opponent because he controls the pace of the route at this point. The only way the defender can change that pace against an accurate throw is to interfere with the receiver. This instructional video of the great Sterling Sharpe teaching the trio of Justin Blackmon, Dez Bryant, and Adarius Bowman at Oklahoma State illustrates this technique in detail.

Hunter does a good job of reaching for the ball with his hands, and his arms and hands have good spacing to catch the football. In hindsight, it might have been more optimal for Hunter to slow his gait, turn back to the ball, and reach for the pass at the highest window with his palms facing the ball. But it’s hard to argue the technique he chose to catch this pass. With the ball less than a foot from his hands, the importance of Hunter getting his back to the defender becomes even more apparent to the naked eye.

The defender has to little chance to come over the top and reach an accurate throw with Hunter in this position. The only recourse Hunter’s opponent has is to grab the receiver’s arms and hope he can separate Hunter from the ball. This should be a 38-yard catch, but the corner succeeds in doing just what I mentioned: pulling the ball loose from Hunter’s grip.

As Hunter retracts his arms to his body, the defender reaches under the receiver’s back shoulder and pulls Hunter’s arms away from the ball. This happens to the best of receivers in the NFL, but it’s also a pass that should have been caught and it’s far from the only example in Hunter’s career. Even so, the Tennessee receiver also has his share of positive outcomes in similar situations. It is these positive flashes of promise and his elite athleticism that makes him a top prospect.

What NFL teams want to know is if they can feel comfortable with Hunter will work at his craft to become a more consistent player and reach his vast promise. This is why character is so heavily factored into the decision-making process for many NFL teams. While the divide between top college performance and steady, productive NFL production is a wider gap than most discuss, I’d have no problem making a high-priced investment in Hunter’s development based on what I’ve learned about Hunter thus far.

As a student of the game with no access to background investigations, interviews, and player visits, the craft of the game is more interesting to me than whether the player is going to fulfill his potential. If my assessment of Hunter or any other player is critical, it’s generally not personal. I root for most of these guys to succeed. I write about them to hone my craft and share with others.

Coming Soon: Part III of this series will cover Hunter’s route running skills, which despite minor criticism in part one, is one of the reasons Hunter has a chance to become a great NFL receiver if he can refine the inconsistencies of his pass catching technique.

For more analysis of skill players entering the NFL, download the 2012 Rookie Scouting PortfolioBetter 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.

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