Towson football return specialist D’Ago Hunter could have been a star — in basketball.
Just a few years ago, he had scored 1,000 points as a starting point guard for Eastern View High School in Culpeper, Virginia, but kept that achievement under wraps until Tigers coach Rob Ambrose recently blew his cover.
“I like to stay humble, but I’m pretty athletic at basketball,” said Hunter, whose first name is pronounced Dee-A-go. “It was a good time. I would say that I’m all right, I’m decent.”
Offensive quality control coach Shane Simpson said Hunter is being modest, recalling the first time he saw Hunter play in a pickup game among football players in the spring of 2019.
“We usually went on Fridays, and I saw him just playing around, shooting the ball,” said Simpson, who had played five seasons at Towson from 2015 to 2019. “Then we got into five-on-five, and I was like, ‘Wow, he can really play. He wasn’t lying.’ I was like, ‘OK.’ Caught me by surprise.”
For now though, Hunter’s canvas is the gridiron. Two months after being cited by the Colonial Athletic Association as an honorable mention kick and punt returner, the redshirt senior returned a kick 96 yards for a touchdown in Saturday’s 65-7 loss at West Virginia.
The score was the sixth longest kick return at the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision level this season and the second longest by an FCS player against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent. The play earned Hunter the CAA’s Special Teams Player of the Week award and caught the attention of New Hampshire coach Rick Santos, whose Wildcats (2-1 overall, 2-0 CAA) will visit the Tigers (2-1, 0-0) at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson on Saturday at 4 p.m.
“You turn on the tape, and he’s electric,” Santos said. “For us, we have to stay true to our lanes and have integrity in our lanes when we come down. We’ve got to find a way to swarm to the football, and we can’t rely on just one guy to tackle him. That’s proven. Even a team as formidable as West Virginia couldn’t do that.”
Speed has long been Hunter’s calling card. As an adolescent, he was called “The Flash,” and Towson defensive coordinator Eric Daniels recently nicknamed Hunter “The Hummingbird.” Hunter has been timed running a 4.53 in the 40-yard dash and reached a speed of 21.5 mph while wearing a GPS unit.
“It makes sense,” Hunter said of the aviary-related label. “They’re quick, decisive and get to one point from the other. My speed is definitely something that I stuck to with me not growing as tall as everybody else. So I kind of stuck to my speed and focused on that, knowing that I needed that to overcome all of the other things around me like my height.”
Listed at 5 feet 6, Hunter is Towson’s shortest player. But overlook him at your own peril, Simpson warned.
“I think he uses that to his advantage just because he’s always been told that he’s short, that he’s little, that he’ll never play D-I,” he said. “But he’s beaten all the odds that were stacked against him. And being that little, he can use that to his advantage because everyone is going to be taller. So he can hide behind blockers much more easily. And with him being so low to the ground, it’s going to be hard to tackle him.”
Hunter said he heard the whispers growing up. But his size did not discourage him from football, basketball, baseball or track and field.
“I always had people doubting me while going through middle school and high school and now college,” he said. “I never really focused on it. So I just took it how it was and let my play prove them wrong.”
Recruited initially in 2017 as a wide receiver, Hunter has since shifted to running back, where he has carried the ball 14 times for 45 yards this fall. But he burst onto the scene in his redshirt freshman season on Oct. 19, 2019, when he returned a kick 92 yards for a touchdown in a 56-7 rout of Bucknell.
“Truth be told, he is one of the best athletes on our team. … He’s a very talented athlete, and it’s our job to find ways to get him the ball,” Ambrose said.
As thrilling as that return against Bucknell was, Hunter admitted that his score against the Mountaineers on Saturday was even more meaningful. A cousin, Bradley Starks, was a quarterback who converted to wide receiver at West Virginia, and Hunter modeled his game after former Mountaineers running back-wide receiver Tavon Austin, who grew up in Baltimore and graduated from Dunbar.
“When I was younger, I always watched West Virginia,” he said. “So doing it on West Virginia’s field was definitely the better one. I saw a lot of Towson jerseys body-on-body. I saw there was an opening, and I went to go take it and made a few people miss. The next thing I knew, I was in open field, and all I did was run.”
Hunter works closely with Simpson, who was the CAA Special Teams Player of the Year in 2018 and a first-team running back. Hunter credited Simpson with schooling him on the importance of film study.
“He puts in the time in the film room,” Simpson said. “Out here, he asks a lot of questions. Everything else, I can’t really teach. That’s something he has.”
Since 2019, New Hampshire has allowed only one kick return for a touchdown. Santos would like to maintain that streak but understands even a long return by Hunter could provide his teammates with a boost.
“I think any time you can create an explosive play on special teams, it dramatically increases your chance of scoring on that drive and gives you momentum,” he said. “Those hidden yards that don’t get talked about quite enough and don’t show up in the stats, I think those are some of the things that ultimately lead to wins and losses.”
Hunter, 22, has one more year of eligibility after this season and said he would like to play professionally in the NFL, USFL, XFL or CFL. Simpson said he thinks all options are on the table for Hunter.
“The sky’s the limit for him,” he said. “Obviously, he’s always going to deal with the height disadvantage, but he doesn’t let that affect him, and I love that about him. He doesn’t let anybody get under his skin. He’s going to go to work every day and be the best player he can be for this team.”
Saturday, 4 p.m.