NOTRE DAME — Spring is a time for new growth and change — a time to shake off the winter coat and stretch rusty joints.
No one can attest to that more than Notre Dame football players Torii Hunter Jr. and Nicky Baratti, both of whom return to the football field Saturday, April 12, for the first time since suffering injuries last year.
Hunter, a sophomore wide receiver, broke his femur during U.S. Army All-American Bowl workouts in January 2013 — just a month before signing with the Irish. Baratti, who served as a backup safety in 2012, suffered a dislocated shoulder during fall practices last August. Both were out for the entirety of 2013.
All eyes will be on quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, running backs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston and linebacker Jaylon Smith during the Blue-Gold scrimmage Saturday.
But since Kelly plans on mixing up the lineups instead of sticking to purely first teamers and substitutes, Baratti and Hunter should see plenty of playing time.
"I'm excited to get back out there," Baratti said. "It's been a while. I think it will be fun. I'm ready to enjoy the moment, have fun, fly around. Be safe. That's my main goal."
Baratti, who said he is "shaking off the rust," has eased back into contact drills and has taken mostly second-team reps during the spring. Head coach Brian Kelly said Baratti's next step is to find a comfort level with being back on the field.
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"(He's) going through that reaction phase," Kelly said. "His comfort level's got to come when he's actually engaging wide receivers, taking on blocks, making tackles to build confidence that that shoulder's OK."
Baratti likens his situation to fellow safety Austin Collinsworth. A year ago, Collinsworth entered the spring returning from his own shoulder injury and ended up starting 11 games in the fall.
While Collinsworth and sophomore Max Redfield are likely the first-team starters entering summer camp, Baratti is prepared to fill any void needed.
"I'm at where (Collinsworth) was at last spring, struggling to get back to 100 percent strength, 100 percent healthy," Baratti said. "Anything can happen. This sport has showed me that. Anybody can go down at any time. God forbid, I hope they don't, but sometimes you have to expect the worst."
On the other side of the ball, Hunter, son of Detriot Tigers' right fielder Torii Hunter, is adapting not only to the pace of college football, but to the new and improved Everett Golson.
"It was definitely a major change for me because I never really got to play with Tommy (Rees) much," Hunter said of Golson. "That ball comes in pretty hot. You’ve just got to get used to it and get on the same page as an offense: the receivers and quarterback. Everybody has to be on the same page. I think we’ll gather more chemistry over the summer."
Like Baratti, Hunter has stuck mostly with the second teamers throughout the spring, though he has also taken reps with the starters. When Hunter gets those chances, Kelly is sure to stick the team's top cornerbacks, KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke, on him.
"Like a lot of young guys, the more (Hunter) sees things, the better he's going to be," offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said. "He's not where we need him to be yet, but you can see so many positive things that are going to happen there moving forward. We're just trying to speed up the process as fast as we can."
On top of learning the offense and maximizing his potential, Hunter is also in the running for punt return duties, an area which has plagued Notre Dame for several years. Hunter has a full plate, and coaches expect him to balance it accordingly. Far from being overwhelmed, Hunter is grateful for the acknowledgement.
"Just knowing that the coaches believe in me even though I’ll have a bad practice where I think I should’ve made more plays and done better with what I was doing," he said. "The fact they didn’t give up on me is definitely motivating me and uplifting I guess to look to the future."