Football: Cajuns offensive lineman Hunt a big target in NFL Draft
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, April 19, 2020
Back home in small-town Texas, where dinner or a snack sometimes could be found hopping down the bunny trail at the opposite end of a muzzle, nearly everything was fair game for Robert Hunt and his kinfolk.
On occasion, the bag made for good eats. Even the little guy just trying to take a few nuts back up his tree.
“We’d shoot squirrels, for real,” Hunt says with a hearty laugh. “We’d shoot squirrels, rabbits, raccoons – all that.”
Now, Hunt is the object of pursuit, and NFL teams are on the chase.
The Ragin’ Cajuns offensive lineman is the No. 1-rated offensive guard for the three-day 2020 NFL Draft that opens Thursday, according to Athlon Sports, NFL Draft Report’s Mike Detillier and ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper.
“He’s so physical in the run game – he just destroys defenders at the point of attack,” Kiper – who projects that Hunt will go in the second round, 39th overall – wrote for ESPN.com.
UL offensive lineman Robert Hunt (50, right), a 2020 NFL Draft prospect, blocks during a 2019 game at Georgia Southern. (Photo: ragincajuns.com)
When and where he really will go, no one – not even Hunt – knows.
Part of the reason for that is Hunt missed the second half of senior season at UL – seven games – due to an injury.
Last Dec. 17, Hunt said, he underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia.
As a result, he couldn’t play in UL’s LendingTree Bowl win over Miami (Ohio). He couldn’t practice for the Senior Bowl, to which he was invited. And Hunt – who hopes to be a first-round selection – was limited only to interviews, with no physical activity, at the NFL Draft Combine.
If Hunt had been able to take part in workouts at the Senior Bowl, UL offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Rob Sale said, “I can see him being a first-rounder.”
“Unfortunately because I wasn’t able to do anything I don’t know where I stand right now,” Hunt, who after playing guard earlier in his college career finished at right tackle, said in a telephone interview Thursday with The Daily Advertiser.
“I wish I could have participated in all those things I had a chance to go to, because I feel I could have helped myself out a lot.
“But it’s still a blessing to even be on the board anywhere,” he added, “whether it’s first round or sixth or seventh round.”
Related: Hunt to miss bowls
Equally as frustrating for Hunt was not finishing his Cajun career on the field.
The sports hernia cost him a chance to help a team that went 11-3, lost to Appalachian State in its second straight Sun Belt Conference championship game and made its third bowl appearance in the last four seasons.
“It sucked, honestly, because that was a good season for us, and I really enjoyed it,” Hunt said of missing the latter half of 2019. “That was one of the best seasons we ever had as a program. That is the best we’ve had ever had as a program.
“I was happy to be a part of it, but I wish I could have contributed … a little bit. But, being who I am, I was still there with the team, still trying to lead.”
Week in and week out, Hunt yearned to return.
“At first I thought I would be back in two weeks,” he said. “Then two weeks turned to three weeks, and three weeks to four weeks, and I’m like, ‘All right, now I don’t really know what is happening.’
“I just knew I wasn’t progressing the way I wanted. I got better, but it wasn’t to where I wanted to be at. I couldn’t play on it. And I tried. I kept trying to come back.”
Hunt even traveled with the Cajuns to Boone, North Carolina, and suited up for UL’s second straight SBC title-game meeting with the Mountaineers.
But he simply couldn’t go.
And for someone who’s all about playing the game, that really hurt.
'I DIDN'T WANT TO BE HOME'
At Burkeville High in tiny Burkeville, Texas, a 10-mile shot from the Texas-Louisiana border, Hunt played on a high school team that had – depending on the season – as few as 13 and never more than 18 players.
The Mustangs won all of two games during his four-year high school career, one Hunt’s sophomore season, one his senior season, both again the same opponent.
“Sabine Pass, baby,” Hunt said.
“I wish we would have won more games. We couldn’t, but … I had a good time.”
What kept him going amid all the losing?
Hunt was a basketball guy from the get-go. He threw shot put. He played first base on the baseball team.
Why bother with a football team that couldn’t muster more than two victories in four seasons?
“I like sports,” Hunt said.
“I didn’t have anything to do if I went home,” Hunt said. “I didn’t have Wi-Fi, didn’t have cable, so I didn’t want to be home.
“I wanted to be outside, doing something, doing something good, playing sports.”
And if that didn’t involve hunting, it meant playing football in the fall.
ALL ABOUT BASKETBALL
Coming out of Burkeville High, and the same Texas county, Newton, that produced former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Ernie Holmes of Steel Curtain fame from the 1970s, the Cajuns quietly were the only FBS team onto Hunt early on.
Houston made a late bid, but by then the big fella had his heart set on UL.
And by the beginning of his junior season at the Sun Belt school, it was apparent the Cajuns had a likely future NFL pick.
As a kid, Hunt never would guessed it would be so.
Sure, he dreamed. Everyone did. But in the younger Hunt’s mind, remember, it was hoops first and foremost.
For someone who now stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 322 pounds, the NBA’s call was loudest at first.
“Of course playing football everybody wants to go to the NFL,” he said. “But I was just saying that, maybe.
“I always liked playing it, but I always thought I was gonna be basketball player. I was kind of going down that route, but then eventually I started playing this game.”
The game that, it became apparent the offseason between his sophomore and junior seasons, was his ticket to eating better than squirrel and rabbit.
It was that year, 2018, that Hunt began transforming his body into an NFL-worthy one.
“I kind of got into shape,” he said.
“I was talking to my coaches; some of them just knew I had a chance, so I just wanted to make myself known.”
He did just that.
“I think my junior year I opened up a lot of eyes, letting them know I could play,” Hunt said of NFL scouts. “Then my senior year I was just killing it until unfortunately the injury happened.”
'ALL DAY, EVERY DAY'
Hunt, who has been working out in California since finishing at UL, is fine these days.
“I’m 100 percent,” he said.
“I’ve been doing everything. … I good right now. I feel good, I’m moving good, back to doing my own things.”
But because UL’s April 9 Pro Day was canceled due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic sweeping the nation, Hunt couldn’t prove that to NFL decision-makers.
Instead, he’s had to – like most draft prospects – use FaceTime and Zoom to speak with team representatives and follow up the in-person meetings he had with a handful of NFL teams at the Combine.
And when they ask, ‘Who is Robert Hunt?’ how does he respond?
“I just tell them, ‘I’m Robert Hunt all day, every day. The same guy. A guy that’s gonna work hard. A guy that’s a leader, who’s confident in himself, confident in his ability. A guy that can play any position that you want, and will be good at it for the next 8-to-10 years,’ ” he said.
In other words?
“The truth, in my opinion,” said Hunt, a first team 2019 All-Sun Belt time despite all the time he missed.
'BIG OL' CREATURES'
Levi Lewis can attest to the leadership aspect of Hunt’s assertion.
The Cajuns' southpaw quarterback spent the last two years, 2019 as UL’s starter and 2018 as its regular backup, being protected on his right side by Hunt and All-American guard Kevin Dotson, an NFL Draft prospect in his own right.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that lead by example and do things the right way,” Lewis said as he looked forward to his 2020 senior season without those two, “but we need more vocal leaders.
“That’s what we miss with Rob and Kevin – just more guys talking and speaking up.”
Missing Hunt and Dotson as well will be Sale, a former offensive line coach at Arizona State, UL Monroe, Georgia and McNeese who played on the o-line himself at LSU.
Hired when Arizona State offensive coordinator Billy Napier became UL’s head coach late in 2017, Sale is among those aforementioned Cajun coaches who realized right away what they had in Hunt and Dotson.
How did he know?
“Just watching them run around, change direction,” Sale said.
“Then you get to have conversation with them. Then you get to see their mental makeup – sometimes you hear me say, ‘how they’re wired’ – and they were all of that.
“They’re big, ol’ creatures that can move around, and football was important to them,” Sale added. “You could see that. They were great leaders. … Coach Rod (Mitch Rodrigue, Sale’s predecessor as UL’s offensive line coach and now Colorado’s offensive line coach) did a great job recruiting those guys.”
Even before UL’s first spring practice under its new regime, the two opened eyes.
“Just watching them … doing box drills, doing cone or agilities, watching them lift in the weight room – I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah,’ ” Sale said. “I mean, it’s nice to have toys.”
Picking up where Rodrigue and ex-UL head coach Mark Hudspeth left off, Sale simply gave Hunt and Dotson a few more tools with which to play.
“I think they were just a sponge – took the coaching, took the critique and did everything we asked,” Sale said.
RACOONS AND SQUIRRELS
Now potential is about to become reality.
For Hunt, knowing where he came from, all he’s endured, it’s mind-blowing.
“I’m still going through it myself, trying to figure out everything that’s happened,” he said. “But, I’m blessed. And I know that. So nothing’s being taken for granted.”
Not after bouncing around from one Texas home of residence to another, including Wiergate, the map dot about two miles from his high school in Burkeville, as the crow flies.
And the bunny hops. And the squirrel scoots. And those pesky racoons run to stay out of firing range.
Did Hunt really shoot critters for dinner?
Let’s just say the chase is more enjoyable than the taste.
“Racoons for the sport,” Hunt said, laughter still in his voice. “My dad will eat that, but I don’t really like that. The squirrels? … I ate it once or twice.”