COLUMBIA, Mo. — Injuries and plenty of talent ahead of him on the depth chart always seemed to keep Jimmie Hunt from reaching his full potential.
Now that Dorial Green-Beckham, Marcus Lucas, L’Damian Washington and a nagging injury are all gone, the senior wide receiver’s abilities are front and center. Through three games against inferior opponents, Hunt has 11 catches for 123 yards and his four touchdowns are tied with Bud Sasser for the team lead.
"Jimmie’s pretty healthy at the moment, so that’s all we kind of needed from him," Sasser says. "He’s that natural playmaker and we expect him to do the things he’s doing."
An ankle injury limited him last season as he split time with Sasser in the slot, though Hunt never got to start. He still had career highs of 22 receptions and 253 yards, numbers he’s poised to crush as a senior.
Although he’s listed at 215, Hunt says he lost 15 pounds from last season to drop to 205, and it shows in sharper cuts and more agility on the field. Hunt hasn’t caught any passes for longer than 19 yards, but that’s not because the former kick returner doesn’t have the speed to be a deep threat.
Coaches have simply found a better use for him in the slot, where he excels at finding holes in a defense. He found plenty at Toledo two weeks ago on his way to six catches for a career-high 71 yards and two touchdowns.
No receiver has a better on-field connection with Maty Mauk, especially when the mobile sophomore quarterback gets out of the pocket. Coach Gary Pinkel says the receivers follow certain rules on scramble plays, and Hunt seems to always know where Mauk expects him to be.
"He’ll see something, he’ll give me a wink or something and I’ll see something, I’ll give him a wink," Hunt says. "We’re pretty much on the same page for the most part, but it’s something we go over in practice during the week."
Hunt, Sasser and Darius White all stayed in Columbia over the summer to run scramble drills with Mauk instead of going home. It paid off again last Saturday when Mauk ran to his left and made a difficult throw look easy as Hunt sprinted toward the left sideline of the end zone.
He caught Mauk’s two best passes in the first half, both for touchdowns. Even Sasser jokes that he’s a little jealous of Hunt’s connection with Mauk, especially near the end zone.
The success has come as no surprise to Pinkel, who saw Hunt’s potential even before he caught a 54-yard touchdown pass against Western Illinois as a redshirt freshman. But that would be Hunt’s only reception of the year as he struggled to adapt and earn playing time behind honorable mention All-Big 12 performer T.J. Moe.
"He’s a guy that reminds me a little bit of T.J.," Mauk says of Hunt now. "He knows how to get open. He knows where the open areas are, and he’s going to do the best he can to get there and really make a play on the football."
That makes Hunt the ideal complement to outside receivers such as White and Sasser, a pair of taller wideouts better suited to go deep or make plays over the top of the secondary. Their success leaves space at other levels closer to the line of scrimmage for Hunt, although it wouldn’t be too surprising to see him break out for a big play or two this season.
It’s unlikely he’ll find any linebackers capable of covering him in the slot, and Hunt says his experience helps him with routes that may be more difficult than those on the outside. The less glorified position doesn’t seem to bother him, and he says the same about his long wait for more playing time.
"It comes with the game," Hunt says. "Some guys already paid their dues and you just wait your turn. And when you get the chance, you just make the best of it."