Omar Hunter has been through two head coaches and three defensive coordinators during his five years at Florida. Throw in a national championship and a six-loss season, and he’s seen a lot in his time with the Gators.
But the redshirt senior, who leads the team with 47 career appearances, still pushes himself in practice.
After recording a career-high eight tackles against Kentucky on Sept. 22, Hunter earned Southeastern Conference Defensive Lineman of the Week — his first SEC weekly award.
“I actually noticed a huge, drastic change last week in his level of practice,” junior center Jonotthan Harrison said of Hunter’s performance during the bye week. “For whatever reason, he came out there and he’s completely locked in, saying, ‘It’s time to work. It’s time to go.’ Every single play I’ve seen just outstanding effort out of him, even in practice as if it was a game.”
As for the individual award, Hunter said he didn’t “care one bit.” He’s busy trying to improve.
“With coach (Dan) Quinn and coach (Bryant) Young, we were able to put in extra work, whether it’s in the film room or after practice on the field,” Hunter said. “It’s really been helping me out a lot.”
Hunter finished 2011 with 31 tackles and 2.5 tackles for a loss in 13 games. He’s already notched 17 tackles through the first four weeks of 2012. Hunter hasn’t made a stop behind the line of scrimmage, but he feels like he’s helping the defense more than he has in the past.
“The only difference now is I’ve been making a few more plays, (and) having a few more opportunities to make plays,” Hunter said. “I’ve been capitalizing on those opportunities.”
His coaches have taken notice.
Quinn, who arrived in Gainesville before last season, has seen Hunter increase his lower body strength, giving more push off the ball.
“His pad level, his hand placement — all the things you’re looking for in a defensive tackle, he’s been doing in practice,” Quinn said. “It’s carried over into the game. I think it’s a good message for all the players. The guys that are practicing the best, that’s really when your skills are improving and it’s able to carry over into the game easier.”
Hunter is on pace to record 51 regular-season tackles, 20 more than his previous career high. In the past eight seasons, only one Gators defensive tackle has eclipsed 50 tackles. Jaye Howard made 65 tackles in 2011.
Florida faces a physical LSU team on Saturday. All three running backs expected to play for the Tigers weigh more than 215 pounds.
Sophomore Kenny Hilliard, LSU’s leading rusher, tips the scales at 231 pounds.
Every offensive lineman on the roster, except two freshmen, weighs 300 pounds or more. Hunter is Florida’s heaviest starting defensive lineman at 313 pounds.
“[The] offensive line is massive,” UF coach Will Muschamp said of LSU. “They’re huge. They come off and mash it.”
After the Tigers controlled the football for more than 24 minutes in the second half of last year’s 30-point win in Baton Rouge, the Gators know physicality will be key on Saturday.
Hunter certainly factors into that.
“Omar, I think, is going to have a real great game,” redshirt senior Buck linebacker Lerentee McCray said. “He’s going to come out and surprise a lot of people because we’re going to definitely establish the line of scrimmage.”
Said junior right guard Jon Halapio: “He has more urgency to him. You can see him leading the D-line. You can just see him fired up about everything in practice. Omar Hunter: He loves to hit. He loves hitting drills. He loves the combo drills. He loves all of that.”
Contact Adam Pincus at [email protected].