Devon Hunter was in the eighth grade when he first started receiving offers to play college football. At Indian River High School in Chesapeake, Hunter was a two-way star, earning a selection in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl by compiling 86 tackles as a defensive back along with 1,223 yards rushing and 24 touchdowns his senior year.
When Hunter committed to Virginia Tech, he was a top 100 prospect and one of the top recruits in the state, and thus it provided heaping expectations from the fanbase when he arrived in Blacksburg.
“There is so much pressure on these kids when they are rated these stars,” defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “Not all of them come in and start right away. There are different levels of development. Devon has a great skill set physically, and he is continuing to improve his football mentality.
“There is a lot more to it at this level than in high school football. There is an adjustment right there, but he has done everything we have asked from him. He has been tremendous in his approach to getting better and being the best football player he can be and being a team-first guy.”
After playing mainly on special teams as a freshman, Hunter entered his sophomore season and appeared poised to take over the starting role at the whip/nickel spot, moving there from rover in the offseason. However, Khalil Ladler won the job, and Hunter was only played sparingly.
In his one game starting at the position against Old Dominion, Hunter had his issues in coverage. The whip/nickel spot seemed like an awkward fit from the beginning, and the Chesapeake native admitted as much, calling his time there “shaky.”
After four games, Hunter and the coaching staff made the decision to redshirt and move back to his more natural position at rover.
“I think sometimes we ask a lot of the nickel position, and to be honest, it wasn’t fair to him last year because he kind of got thrown into that spot with not a lot of experience there,” Foster said. “Where he worked primarily at rover for us his first and last year, we kind of threw him to the wolves a little bit. We were hoping that he would grasp that spot, but I think he feels very comfortable where he is, and I like where he is.”
Despite playing out of position, Hunter never griped and did whatever was asked of him through the whole process.
“He never complains, never says he wants to play this or play that,” safeties coach Justin Hamilton said. “He says, ‘Whatever you guys ask me to do, I’ll try to do it to the best of my abilities.’ I think he is in the right spot for him, but if we asked him to go to nickel, or go to D-tackle, or go to O-line, he’d try do it.”
In the college football landscape today where players head for the transfer portal at the first sign of a situation going awry, the redshirt sophomore remained loyal through and through. It was first his family that kept him grounded during the circumstances last year, but also his relationship with Hamilton that kept him going.
“He was there throughout the way when I was really down about everything,” Hunter said of Hamilton, who was the Hokies’ Director of Player Development for the defense last year before replacing Ty Nix as safeties coach this offseason. “He talked to me in my ear about staying in and keep fighting. A lot of the other players have been in the same situation I’m in. I’m working through it.”
Hamilton experienced a similar circuitous path himself at Virginia Tech.
He’s no stranger to position changes. Hamilton came to Blacksburg in 2001 as a highly-touted running back, but played wide receiver as a redshirt freshman and sophomore. He then moved back to running back as a junior before settling in at free safety as a senior, where he tallied 35 tackles and three interceptions.
“He told me that he had played running back and he was getting switched a lot, so he related his situation to mine,” Hunter said. “After talking through it with him, he made it comfortable with me, and knowing that I had someone coaching me up who’s actually been through what I’ve been through. It made me more comfortable with it and just knowing what I can do now for the team.”
While Nix had been in the coaching business longer, Hamilton’s relatability with the players like Hunter provided exactly what the Hokies needed from a position coach following a discordant 2018 campaign.
“The thing I tried to express to [Devon] last year was if my experience helps him, then my experience was worth it,” Hamilton said. “If it helps these guys and they can relate to it, and it helps them to understand what they’re going through and gives them encouragement, then it was worth it for me.
“I felt the same way for [Devon] that I felt when I was in his shoes, where you just need to continue working to figure it out. There’s some dark times in your own mind. But if you continue to do that, you will break through that wall, and he has done that.”
Hunter will officially break through that wall when he starts at that rover spot on Saturday against North Carolina in place of Reggie Floyd. With 10:17 left in the game against Rhode Island, Floyd was flagged for targeting on receiver Isaiah Coulter across the middle.
He’ll miss the first half on Saturday, therefore opening the door for Hunter.
“Devon has been the same guy every day,” Hamilton said. “The biggest thing I’ve seen in his development is that he’s prepared like a starter. He never complained about not being a starter. He comes to work, wants to go do his job, wants to be coached, wants to get better in every way.”
When the Hokies take the field later this weekend, fans will get their first real glimpse of the loyal, humble, once prized recruit who could be a future starter in the secondary.
“Devon’s had a good body of work and he is ready to go play,” Foster said. “He will do a great job. There will be 10 other guys on the field with him, and he won’t have to do it by himself. He doesn’t have to be Superman, just go play his position and play to his capabilities.”