By BRIAN COSTELLO
Wayne Hunter can still see the play in his mind.
First-and-10 on the Jets’ 22, a national TV audience watching as the NFL season kicked off on the anniversary of 9/11. Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware rushing from the outside straight at him, forcing him on his heels, then pushing him to his right and charging inside toward quarterback Mark Sanchez.
“And down goes Sanchez,” Al Michaels said on TV, sounding like Howard Cosell calling Foreman-Frazier.
It was the first offensive play of the Jets season. It was the first play of Hunter’s new job as starting right tackle of the New York jets. It was the play that cemented his place among the media and Jets fans.
I was a pińata,” Hunter said last week in an interview with The Post. “You’ve got to look for someone to take the crap. I’m the new guy filling in for one of the better right tackles that had been playing here in a long time. It makes sense why it was me. That doesn’t mean I like it. “Hunter never recovered from that first play.
Fans and media focused on No. 78’s mistakes for the rest of the season – and he would be the first one to admit there were plenty of mistakes (11 sacks allowed, according to ProFootballFocus.com). But there were good games, too, and that got overlooked because Hunter became a punching bag.
Hunter admits the pressure got to him in 2011. A career backup before last season, he stepped in for the popular Damien Woody. Suddenly, he was no longer a spot starter or an extra lineman used a few plays a game. Now, he was expected to be consistent on every play – something he admits he wasn’t.
The 30-year-old heard the criticism. He would try to ignore the TV and newspapers, but every once in a while he would check the Internet to see what was being said about him and the words would sting.
Hunter said after another poor performance against Jacksonville in Week 2, he began to worry about his job.
“That was the low point,” Hunter said. “I was like, ‘If I don’t perform they’re going to pull me out and put Vlad [Ducasse] in or bring someone else in to play the position.“
Hunter leaned on some of his teammates, who could identify with the scrutiny. Left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, quarterback Mark Sanchez and backup quarterback Mark Brunell all gave Hunter advice. The trio, who have all faced their own criticism, told Hunter to shut out the outside voices and put bad plays behind him and move on.
He took the advice and he began to play better, running off a streak of good games in late September and through October. But the team was struggling at the beginning of the streak and no one seemed to notice Hunter’s improved play. When he suffered poor games again later in the year, the critics circled.
“The first two games were rough and then I snapped out of it,” Hunter said.
“But then every bad game I had after that was looked down upon and heavily criticized, whatever bad play I had.”
There was speculation that Hunter might be released or traded after the season. Instead, the Jets decided to stick with him. They had been impressed enough with his performance at the end of the 2010 season when he filled in for an injured Woody to give him a four-year, $15 million deal last year. The Jets leadership felt he could bounce back.
Hunter says he has put 2011 behind him. He’s hoping the fans can do the same.
“I don’t think the fans will ever forget,” Hunter said. “I’m hoping they’ll eventually hop on the bandwagon. There’s no sense dwelling on the past. If they’re dwelling on the past, then they’re the ones with the problems.”
The Jets believe Hunter will improve in new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano’s system. Brian Schottenheimer, last year’s offensive coordinator, did not believe in helping the tackles with chip blocks from the tight ends and running backs as much as Sparano.
The Jets also intend to return to emphasizing the run more this season, creating a simple equation. The less the Jets pass, the less chances there are for any lineman to allow a sack.
Sparano and new offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo both took a long look at Hunter when they were coaching the Dolphins and he was a free agent.
They have been effusive in their praise of him this spring.
“I’m telling you, this guy has skills,” DeGuglielmo said. “If you find one out there better than that playing that position, bring him to me.”
At 6-foot-5, 318 pounds, Hunter cuts an imposing figure. Teammates say he is one of the strongest players on the team. He is also one of the most respected. That level of respect only increased in the final game of last season when he stood up to wide receiver Santonio Holmes at the end of the game, calling him out for moping and telling him to get off the field.
The incident put a punctuation mark on a wild first season as a starter for Hunter. Entering Year Two, Jets fans are not the only ones pulling for Hunter to play better. Current and former teammates say they believe in Hunter.
“He’s one of those guys that you just want him to do well,” Brunell, who is no longer with the Jets, said this week. “He’s just a great guy in the locker room. When he’s on his game, he’s very, very good. I expect him this season to erase the mistakes of last year and have a solid season.”
Right tackle is one of those positions in football where the mistakes are magnified and the positives are sometimes hard to spot. If Hunter does his job, he shouldn’t be noticed. If he doesn’t, Sanchez will be on his back.
He knows you’re watching. He knows what you think of him. He’s ready to prove you wrong.
“I think more eyes are going to be on me this season,” Hunter said. “The spotlight is going to be a little brighter on me simply because of what happened and all the criticism from the fans and media. I think people are still going to be as critical of me as last year. I’m going to have bad plays. There’s no doubt about it. I’m going to give up sacks. I’m going to give up pressures. The thing is they’re going to pounce on me whenever they can.
I’m going to try my best to limit it.”