Hunter now seen and heard for NCCU

North Carolina Central linebacker Reggie Hunter, seen here at the Celebration Bowl in December, returned this spring as more of a vocal leader for the Eagles.
North Carolina Central linebacker Reggie Hunter, seen here at the Celebration Bowl in December, returned this spring as more of a vocal leader for the Eagles.

North Carolina Central defensive coordinator Granville Eastman had to do a double take during one of the earlier spring football practices.

As Eastman worked the sidelines he heard a voice shouting instructions to his defensive mates. It wasn’t Eastman seeing his middle linebacker get vocal with his teammates that made him look twice, it was the fact it was Reggie Hunter that caught Eastman off guard.

“That’s a big change from four years ago,” Eastman said with a laugh. “Really it started a little bit at the beginning of last year. He was gaining confidence in what we were doing in the defense.”

Four years ago Hunter arrived as a walk-on from Henderson, who paid his dues on special teams before becoming a full-time starter a year ago, where he led the Eagles in tackles (84) and interceptions (four). But even as a regular Hunter was seen not heard. At practice and in games you could see him fly to ball and make plays, but most of the talking was left to middle linebacker LeGrande Harley.

Harley is gone now and Hunter has moved to his vacated middle linebacker position, where it’s up to him to get guys lined up correctly. That means opening his mouth pre-snap and being vocal. And if something went wrong during the play, Hunter points that out as well. Going a step further just to prove how far he has come, Hunter displayed at practice that he doesn’t have a problem delivering some friendly chatter to the offense as well.

But most of his talk is reserved for the defense.

“I have to be more vocal to let the whole defense hear me more,” Hunter said.

That need to step up and communicate better wasn’t an instruction from the coaches, it was something Hunter knew he needed to do with Harley graduating. Dating back to the Celebration Bowl in December, Hunter was already preparing for the new role that would await him once N.C. Central got back to spring drills. It started before spring practice, actually. Hunter was front and center in the weight room and on the field during winter conditioning. Hunter acknowledges that he is a quiet guy, but admitted that on the field “it’s just a different place for me.”

He added, “It’s home to me out here, I’m a different person.”

For the Eagles to win a fourth consecutive MEAC title, the coaches would prefer to have the same Hunter from a year ago, where he burst onto the scene, not only as a dangerous tackler, but a sure handed defender who picked off two passes to secure a road win at Morgan State. Hunter’s play on the field earned him All-MEAC honors for the first time in his career. His success on the field allowed Hunter to come out of his shell a bit, according to head coach Jerry Mack. And since the guys saw what he can do, it made it easier for them to follow Hunter’s lead.

“Over the last two years his role has increased,” Mack said. “Guys see him out there making plays and they understand where he came from, from being a walk-on, to earning a scholarship to being an all-conference linebacker.”

Knowing and mastering the defense played a huge part in Hunter becoming more vocal, as well. Early in his career, Eastman and the staff were concerned about how much information they could throw at Hunter. Now that he’s been in the defense for a couple of years he can think less on the field, and talk more.

“He understands his role,” Eastman said. “Once he had command of both linebacker positions, he knew, OK, it’s on now.”

For Hunter, the transition wasn’t an easy one. First, he says, he doesn’t have the deepest voice, something his teammates and coaches give him a hard time about. But at the end of the day, he knows his voice, no matter how it sounds, needs to be heard, no matter who is on the receiving end.

At practice on Tuesday, the defense picked off a pass from the offense. After the final whistle, Hunter sought out center Steven Perry, who tried to block Hunter during the interception return. Hunter had some words, friendly of course, for Perry, but didn’t stop there. Minutes after practice ended and Perry emerged from the locker room dressed in street clothes, Hunter, still in uniform, chased Perry down and continued with the friendly jabs. That’s something the coaches would have never seen from Hunter years ago, but felt it was always in him.

“I think that’s in his nature to be that kind of guy,” Eastman said. “I think that’s why guys love him and respect him. He’s just one of their leaders. They know where his heart is, he’s all about the team and I think he’s got the respect of his teammates and he can have fun with them anyway he wants. He’s just a competitor and they appreciate that.”

Jonas Pope IV: 919-419-7001, @JEPopeIV