Not caught napping, Hunter catches Z's for Ravens

Prepared, rookie receiver takes Stokley's `Z' spot in stride in first pro start

Pro Football

October 16, 2002|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

The player called upon to replace Brandon Stokley in Sunday's 22-20 loss at Indianapolis was as much of a surprise as the fourth-year receiver's sudden absence.

Rather than turn to third receiver Ron Johnson, who had been spectacular during the preseason but has since seen his production diminish, the Ravens started rookie Javin Hunter for Stokley, who injured his ankle Thursday. Though Stokley could have played, the Ravens wanted to keep him off the artificial turf at the RCA Dome.

Hunter's practice habits, speed and knowledge of his assignments gave coaches enough confidence he could fill the void instead of starting Travis Taylor at Stokley's Z position and Johnson at Taylor's X position.

The Z receiver relies more on speed, goes in motion frequently and is called upon for downfield routes, characteristics that do not suit Johnson but define Hunter. Johnson is known as a physical receiver who can position his body well to get open.

"If Javin hadn't been working the way he had the three previous weeks," said offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, "we probably wouldn't have done it.

"When Brandon got hurt the game before the bye week, he had to miss a whole week of practice. We started giving Javin a lot of work at the Z, and we still felt Travis needed a lot of work at the X. He had a good couple of weeks of practice.

"Brandon ended up making it back and playing in the next couple of games, so when Brandon got hurt Thursday, Javin had been getting all the work at Z, and we thought it would make more sense to keep a guy who had been getting all the reps instead of moving Travis over."

Hunter finished with just one catch for 7 yards, but it was not for lack of effort in trying to get the Notre Dame alum involved.

The Ravens ran Hunter on an end around for 9 yards, set up a screen for the 7-yard gain, threw deep to him on a third-and-one and even called a throwback pass across the field on a kickoff return to him for 63 yards. The problem was, he fumbled on the end around and the screen, though the team maintained possession in both instances.

With Stokley's status undetermined for Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Ravens likely will keep Hunter in the starting lineup if Stokley cannot play.

Johnson, who had not caught a pass in three games before recording a lone 10-yard grab Sunday, will continue to work as the team's third receiver, and the coaching staff maintains it has not lost confidence in him.

"Ron is primarily at one position, and whenever that personal grouping is called, he goes on the field," Cavanaugh said. "I don't think he's slipped. I know his legs started to get a little tired around the third week of the season. David [Shaw, receivers coach] had a heart-to-heart with him about making sure he is taking every opportunity on the practice field to get better.

"I have a lot of positive feelings about Ron. I think he is going to be a good receiver, but he's going to have to wait his turn. When he does get an opportunity, he needs to make the best of it in the game and also bust his butt in practice."

What may force Hunter out of the lineup are the fumbles, which could have been disastrous (one was at the 50, the other at the Ravens' 27).

"I was just trying to get too much," Hunter said. "When guys are tackling you, they are also trying to get the ball. You just have to get down in that situation. But I felt I played decent."

Said Cavanaugh: "We're trying to decide if the fumbles were an aberration or if we have to be careful because we are overloading him with too many things. But I'm impressed with his abilities. He's been working real hard for about the last month.

"I think he went through a lull toward the end of the preseason and the first week or two where he wasn't making a whole lot of improvement. He was making a whole lot of mistakes. Quite honestly, I think he was feeling sorry for himself because he wasn't getting a whole lot of reps."

That much has changed for Hunter.

"He understands firsthand that he's going to be given an opportunity, but we can't not know what's going to happen with the ball with him in the game," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "The next step for him is to, hopefully next week, learn that lesson."

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