It took time, but lineman Wayne Hunter is finally paying off for Jets
Published: Sunday, January 02, 2011, 5:00 AM
By Jenny Vrentas/The Star-Ledger
Wayne Hunter believes he started to learn the position of offensive lineman when he came to the Jets. That was at the end of 2007, nearly five years after he had been a high draft pick by the Seahawks organization.
“I was a third-round bust, basically,” the Jets offensive tackle said this week. “The way I’m playing now was what Seattle was hoping to get out of me. But I’m a late bloomer. Better late than never.”
Through seven years, Hunter’s NFL career has flickered at times: as a game-day inactive, a practice squad player and off a roster entirely, on the verge of searching for a 9-to-5 job in any ordinary field.
For the past three weeks, though — including today’s regular-season finale against the Bills — he has been an important substitute in the Jets’ starting line for right tackle Damien Woody. Hunter may need to carry that role into the postseason, as coach Rex Ryan said he’s “not sure” Woody will be available next week after having arthroscopic knee surgery last month.
For Hunter, 29, it has been another stage of his development in his time here, personal and professional, the latter tested by a recent slate of the league’s premier pass rushers: Houston’s Mario Williams, Miami’s Cameron Wake, Pittsburgh’s LaMarr Woodley and Chicago’s Julius Peppers.
“He’s really held his own,” offensive line coach Bill Callahan said. “Things didn’t go the way he wanted them to go against Miami. But aside from that, the last two weeks — knock on wood — he’s been really, really good.”
Coach Rex Ryan has called Hunter “the best backup tackle in football,” which was tested after Woody injured his MCL against the Texans in November. Hunter was called into spot duty that week and in the Miami loss Week 14 — when Wake sacked quarterback Mark Sanchez from Hunter’s side twice in the final series, a frustrating sequence for Hunter.
But when Woody needed a knee scope after that game, Hunter became the designated starter for the rest of the regular season. That affected his preparation. He was able to home in on his match-ups in the film room. He worked on communication and sought feedback from right guard Brandon Moore in practice. He said he found a rhythm.
Opponents have recorded just one sack of Sanchez in the past two weeks, a zero-yard scramble in Pittsburgh, as the whole line has elevated its play.
Each of Hunter’s starts has been significant to him, his first as an offensive lineman — he had two previously as a jumbo package tight end — in a slow-developing career.
“A lot of times you need a new start to do well,” said Hunter, who was out of the NFL for a year before the Jets gave him a chance. “I was forced into being away from football, and I think that really helped, because I got to reset my mind.”
Callahan, renowned at coaching the position, is the person Hunter — a converted defensive lineman in college — credits with helping him master it.
The coach’s approach was to help him develop an instinct for the game, breaking it down to its simplest terms so he could easily transfer techniques between situations and schemes.
His work ethic, Hunter credits to his mother, Frances, who worked multiple jobs while raising him and younger brother, Alexander, as a single mom on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. She worked for Hawaiian Airlines, and is now a cab driver, and Hunter said her industriousness is her “best quality.”
He also learned strength and resilience from her, of which he was reminded when a deadly tsunami hit her native Samoa last fall, capturing the lives of six of their family members. Hunter, separated by several time zones, felt powerless to help. He took one day off from work and returned the next, burying himself in football.
Longevity in the NFL is a gift he is striving to give back to his mother, his wife, Danielle, and three daughters: Shaylyn, 7, and twins Jordyn and Sydney, 3. That option almost seemed extinguished after the year lay-off, when Hunter called his agent, Kenny Zuckerman, with a frank question: “Do I have a future playing in the NFL?”
“Are you kidding me?” Zuckerman told him. “It’s only a matter of time.”
Zuckerman was right, but Hunter’s concern was legitimate. He played just two seasons of tackle for Hawaii, after which Seattle drafted him for his physical gifts and potential. He said he never learned how to improve technically there — a work in progress without the progress — and was active for just two games in three seasons.
Seattle waived him, and his next chance was in Jacksonville, where he had a poor offseason and training camp and was frustrated to be put on the practice squad in 2006. An ACL tear landed him somewhere more frustrating: first on injured reserve and then out of football for a year.
The Jets personnel department took a chance on him late in 2007 — something for which he’s still grateful to then-coach Eric Mangini — and that’s when the pieces started to come together. He and Danielle had just welcomed their twins, and on the field, the Jets began creating ways for him to be used despite a talented starting line.
The jumbo package was a key element to last season’s ground-and-pound identity, and was used heavily in the playoffs. Callahan says the members of the team are, to a man, “in awe” of Hunter’s athleticism — and the fact that at 6-5, 318 pounds, he can run routes as well as some of the tight ends.
When his first start as a lineman came at Pittsburgh, his wife was at Miami Mike’s sports bar in East Hanover with about a dozen other Jets wives, who erupted for her when his name was announced in the starting lineup.
“It’s almost surreal to watch him start,” Danielle Hunter said. “He absolutely puts a lot more into it now than he did when we first met (in 2003). He’s studying harder, eating better, doing everything a little better.”
Hunter is on a one-year tender and is in the interesting situation of being one player whose delayed unrestricted free agency may have benefitted him. His agent says he’s been getting calls from “NFL insiders,” praising what Hunter has been able to put on film essentially for the first time.
Hunter isn’t thinking about what’s next, because he says he doesn’t want the pressure to “mess me up.” He’s keeping his focus narrow — taking each game one snap at a time, instead of looking ahead to third downs.
But he does have a preference for his future.
“I want to stay here,” Hunter said. “I don’t want to go anywhere else.
This is where I matured as a football player, so this is where I want to stay.”
Not sure what Woody's cap hit is but maybe you resign Hunter and let Woody go...