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Hunter Gets Kicks As Coverage Specialist


Ask special teams standout Jason Hunter whether he enjoys covering kickoffs or punts more, and the third-year pro will lean toward kickoffs.

But his rather non-committal answer reveals just how much he enjoys his job.

"On kickoff, you go downfield and you don't really have to think about anything," Hunter said. "You just run in that straight line and if somebody is in your way, you knock them over and get to the ball.

"Punt is more (about) get your proper footwork and protect. But punt is fun too. Once you do your initial job protecting and make sure they don't block the kick, then you can just run down the field full steam.

"You have to keep your head on a swivel for both."

Hunter's head, and his difficult-to-handle 6-foot-4, 270-pound frame, were in the right position often in 2007. He recorded 25 special teams tackles last season, the most by a Packers player in 22 years and the seventh-most since the club began keeping the statistic in 1976.

The impressive tackle total has Hunter shooting for 30 this season, a mark reached by only two other Packers - current director of college scouting John Dorsey did it twice (30 in 1985 and a franchise-best 35 in 1984) and Guy Prather once (34 in 1981).

"I was happy with the progress I made from my first year to my second year," said Hunter, a backup defensive end who wasn't drafted out of Appalachian State. "This year the bar has already been set, so I'm trying to of course go higher than that bar. If I can get 30, that would be a tremendous accomplishment."

It won't be easy, though. Big years like Hunter's in 2007 usually result in opponents studying film and finding ways to neutralize key special teams tacklers.

If other teams make adjustments, the Packers won't necessarily do anything different with Hunter because of all the other effective special teamers on coordinator Mike Stock's crew. The coach feels Hunter's goal of 30 tackles is realistic, but it could be just as likely a teammate approaches it, too.

"It depends on what they're going to try to do to stop him, but don't forget we've got other people too," Stock said. "It's going to be hard to double him all the time because we've got people like Tracy (White), Jarrett Bush, (Charlie) Peprah. You've got people like Korey Hall and (John) Kuhn and Brandon Jackson, who came on late in the season last year. You've got a lot of guys in our core group that have to be reckoned with.

"If they have to double him, then somebody else is going to make the play, but if they try to single him, he's a big, strong, fast guy. Singling him is tough. A guy with that size and speed and maneuverability and power in the open space, he's got an advantage."

That's why Hunter is always in the middle of things, literally. He normally lines up next to the kicker on kickoffs, and next to the center on punts. Stock said that a team's most powerful return is up the middle of the field, so he likes to line up large bodies like Hunter's - with the speed to get downfield quickly and the power to disrupt a blocking scheme - in the middle.

"Being 260, 270 but able to move like a linebacker that's 230, 240, it gives you a clear advantage," Hunter said. "Most of the guys on special teams are not going to be offensive linemen, so if you're 6-4, 270, going against a cornerback 6-1, 180 pounds, it creates matchup problems. That's why coaches love big guys that can move so much."

It's possible to move Hunter around, too, which the Packers could experiment with in the coming year. Last season in Week 6 against Washington, Hunter slid out two spots on kickoff coverage, roughly halfway between the kicker and the outside man. Redskins returner Rock Cartwright then took the opening second-half kickoff to the opposite side of the field, only to have Hunter cross over and still get in on the tackle with teammate Tramon Williams at the 24-yard line.

{sportsad300}Hunter called that one of his favorite special teams plays of the year, along with his big hit on Oakland punt returner Tim Dwight that forced a fumble and led to a mad scramble for the loose ball, recovered by Will Blackmon in the end zone for a Green Bay touchdown.

He also enjoyed the personal escort he gave Williams down the sideline on his 94-yard TD return of a Carolina pooch punt. Hunter didn't really do anything on the play other than almost trip up Williams, but it was a chance to see himself on the highlight reels nonetheless.

Hunter would love to create more highlights on defense, too, and he knows his play at defensive end must continue to improve if he's to stick on the roster for 2008. His speed and frame make him a natural pass rusher, and the more he can hold his own against the run, the more likely he'll hold down a backup defensive end spot.

The competition for roster spots is stiffer now than when Hunter surprisingly made the team as a non-drafted free agent and raw prospect two years ago. His contributions haven't gone unnoticed thus far, and he'd like to keep it that way.

"The main thing is I want to play well, be consistent and help this team win," Hunter said. "If that means getting less tackles but doing some other things well to help the team win, that's what I'm willing to do. I just want us to be successful and win here in Green Bay."

Top special teams tacklers, single season (since 1976)

35: John Dorsey, 1984

34: Guy Prather, 1981

30: John Dorsey, 1985

29: Randy Scott, 1981

Cliff Lewis, 1983

26: Guy Prather, 1984

25: Jason Hunter, 2007

24: Mike McCoy, 1976

23: Steve Wagner, 1977

Steve Wagner, 1978

Guy Prather, 1982

Burnell Dent, 1989

Marviel Underwood, 2005

22: Steve Wagner, 1979

Mike Jolly, 1980

Jim Laughlin, 1983

Cliff Lewis, 1984

Jackie Harris, 1990

Paris Lenon, 2002

Brady Poppinga, 2005

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