Omar Hunter wants more than breakout game

BY foxsports • September 26, 2012

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Gators defensive coordinator Dan Quinn had a meeting lined up as soon as he finished his weekly press conference on Wednesday afternoon.

Quinn was scheduled to meet with the reigning SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week.

In a league loaded with talented defensive linemen, fifth-year senior Omar Hunter might not be the first one on Florida’s roster to come to mind. Hunter’s younger teammates Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley garner much of the attention, and newcomers Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard have gotten their fair share of press.

None of that matters to Hunter. He has a case of tunnel vision in his final season.

With Easley out due to a knee injury in Saturday’s 38-0 win over Kentucky and Floyd sidelined in the second half with a shoulder injury, Hunter helped Florida shut out an SEC opponent for the first time in 11 years. He finished with a career-high eight tackles.

“I’ve always considered myself one of the leaders on this defense being one of the older guys,’’ Hunter said. “Then losing those two guys who we count on week in and week out, they go down and you definitely have to step up a little more. But it’s not trying to do anyone else’s job; it’s about doing my job and doing it at a higher level.

“That’s the only thing I’m concerned about.”

Despite being named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week for the first time in his career – a personal goal Hunter set prior to the season – he walked off Florida Field on Saturday uncertain of his performance. He knew he made some plays, often fighting off double teams from Wildcats center Matt Smith and right guard Larry Warford.

Still, Hunter wanted a sack, or a tackle for loss – maybe a forced fumble like he had against Ohio State in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day.

A Parade All-American coming out of Buford (Ga.) High, Hunter is determined to have a greater impact than in the past.

“I thought I played all right but you never know until you watch the film,’’ he said. “There were many times when I thought I had a great game and Coach told me I had the worst game of my career. I just come in and try to get better each and every day and hope for the best.”

The quest to get better was the reason for his meeting with Quinn on Wednesday. Quinn had every play from Saturday’s game involving Hunter spliced onto the same film. Time to study.

“He’s got a real serious approach to his game right now, which I like,’’ Quinn said. “He works at it hard. I’m encouraged about where he is headed.”

So is Florida coach Will Muschamp.

“Omar continues to have a really good senior season,” Muschamp said at his Monday press conference. “Played well and it was good to hear that he got the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week. It was well-deserved.”

Through four games the 6-foot-1, 313-pound Hunter has 17 tackles, a pace that would give him 51 over a 12-game regular season. That would easily surpass the career-high 31 tackles Hunter accumulated last season as a reserve until earning his first start of the season in the Gator Bowl.

Hunter has started all four games this season. The SEC award showed Hunter’s commitment to closing out his UF career in strong fashion is paying off. He credits Quinn and defensive tackles coach Bryant Young with playing major roles in his improved production.

Quinn was an NFL assistant for a decade and Young was one of the NFL’s premier defensive tackles for the 49ers for 14 seasons. Hunter listens closely when they talk.

“They kept telling me that I could have been making those plays as long as I rely on my technique,’’ Hunter said. “In that [Kentucky] game I really played some good technique, fundamentally sound football and those plays came.

“I feel that from the time I got here as a freshman until now that I’m 10 times better. I feel like my technique and fundamentals are definitely better, I feel like I’m more mature on the football field and off, I feel like I’ve developed into more of a leader. I don’t get down about little small stuff that much anymore. When it’s time to make plays and time to step up, I feel like I’ve been doing a pretty good job and getting better each day.”

Hunter received another sign of that progress on Wednesday in the weight room.

In past years he would be unable to maintain his top numbers in the weight room during the season. However, on Wednesday morning he maxed-out in the squat (495 pounds) and power clean (325 pounds) during a bye week workout.

“It feels good,’’ he said. “I want more. Those are very explosive lifts and I feel explosive. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. I’m faster than I’ve ever been.”

Quinn wants to see Hunter use some of that newfound explosiveness to improve his pass-rushing skills. That was another goal on Hunter’s preseason list. He is aiming for three sacks and seven tackles for loss before the end of the season.

Quinn’s message to him in the offseason seems to have registered.

“This is your time to go do it,’’ Quinn told him. “He had to make some changes from a strength standpoint, and for him, it’s transferred onto the field. He came out real solid. And now you see him building a little bit better, building a little bit better, where he is seeing things, he’s playing well, his pad level is good, he is using his hands well, so to me it was kind of a culmination of those things.

“He is really playing some of his best football.”

The rest of the SEC has noticed.