When the 5-5 Towson Tigers take the field on Saturday afternoon against Hampton (4-6) for Senior Day at Johnny Unitas Stadium, they’ll be seeking their fourth-straight victory.
That would be a strong finish for Towson, which started the year 2-0 before a going on a five-game losing skid. What looked like a lost season just a few weeks ago, though, has now turned into one creating optimism for better days ahead.
A lot of that promise is embodied by the smallest player on the field, D’Ago Hunter. The 5-foot-6, 160-pound redshirt senior is one of the most electrifying players in all of college football.
Whenever he gets his hands on the ball, he’s a threat to score from anywhere on the field. In a decisive 27-3 home win over the heavily favored Villanova Wildcats, he returned a fourth-quarter punt 77 yards for a touchdown. He also took an earlier kickoff for a 60-yard return and compiled 150 total yards in the return game.
That performance pales in comparison to what he did the week prior against Monmouth, when he gained 334 all-purpose yards, including a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The effort earned him National FCS Special Teams Player of the week honors, further amplifying what his coaches and teammates have long known.
Hunter might be the smallest player on the field, but his speed, versatility and vision coalesce into an explosive package that sends shivers down the spines of opposing coaches.
The Banner caught up with Hunter after practice earlier this week to talk about his journey as a little man in a big man’s game.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Banner: What’s life like growing up in Culpepper, Virginia?
D’Ago Hunter: It’s a very small town, everybody knows everybody and it’s a pretty cool environment to grow up in.
How was your adjustment to Baltimore and college life at Towson coming from such a small-town environment?
Culpepper is very country, so I was excited to move into the city. I had to get used to seeing less grass everywhere and being surrounded by big buildings. That was definitely a big change and took some getting used to.
Were you always involved in sports from a young age?
Always, starting from the age of 4 or 5 playing flag football and T-ball. Whatever sport was in season — football, basketball, baseball, track and field — I played it. My dad was an athlete who was pretty good in high school and my mom ran track, so we’re an athletic family. I have two younger brothers that play basketball, baseball and football.
Were you always small for your age, or did you get to a point where everybody started to outgrow you?
In middle school I was the same size as everybody else. Once high school hit, that’s when everybody flew by me. Ever since then I’ve just been short.
I watched some of your high school highlights and it looked like a damn video game. I thought I was watching a smaller version of Reggie Bush out there. You were phenomenal, with crazy speed, balance and vision.
All-State, All-Region and All-Conference, you were one of the best prep players in the state of Virginia. But I’ll bet that, because of your diminutive stature, a lot of people doubted that you’d ever play in college.
Most of my life, I’ve been an underdog athletically because of my size. Going into high school, people didn’t think I’d be able to play because I was so small. But I was always mentally secure and focused.
I knew what I was capable of, and I knew that God had some good things in store for me. I just stayed the course and trusted the process. I always knew that if someone gave me an opportunity that I was going to take advantage of it. Ultimately, I knew that I’d prove a lot of people wrong.
As a high school senior you weighed 145 pounds. Division I football programs aren’t salivating over players with your measurables. How did your recruitment shake out?
My goal in high school was to play D-I in college. I knew I could play at that level. But as a senior, despite what I was doing on the field, I didn’t have one single D-I offer. I had a lot of offers from Division II and III schools up and down the East Coast.
Then I got a call from Towson very close to signing day and they said they were interested in me. I came for a visit, fell in love with the campus and the environment here and I took my chance.
But they didn’t offer you a scholarship initially, they invited you to join the program as a preferred walk-on, which basically meant you had to pay your own way and prove to the coaching staff that you could play at this level.
Yeah, I took the chance to come here and walk on. I knew I had to get to work so I could get that scholarship money. Going into my redshirt sophomore year, they offered me a full ride because I not only proved that I could play, but that I could be a difference-maker.
Describe that feeling when you learned that you earned that scholarship, proving all the doubters wrong.
That was so incredible and fulfilling. Right after coach told me, I called my parents and there was so much joy expressed on that call. We were all crying. It was a great moment and an awesome feeling to know that all my hard work had finally paid off. But I also knew that there was more work to be done.
Take me back to that one moment where you instinctively knew that you could tear it up in college in the same way that you did in high school. When did the proverbial light bulb go off?
When I first got here, during my first camp. I could tell that a lot of people didn’t think too much of me from just looking at me. As a freshman, you don’t start out in the main team locker room. You have to earn your way in there by proving yourself on the field.
I was going crazy on the field that first week and was the first freshman that year to get moved up into the locker room. Right then and there, I knew I was in the right place, and I knew I could play with these guys.
When did you realize that as a kick and punt returner you have a magical gift that most people don’t have?
Going back to being a kid playing Pop Warner, I always had an instinct for the game. I studied the game so much by watching older guys that I wanted to emulate, guys like Devin Hester and Tavon Austin.
I really studied the science of the return game and with my speed and quickness, I’m able to translate my thoughts into action on the field. I’m able to think and see things on the fly. Going into high school is when I started to realize that I was a weapon as a kick returner.
It’s funny that you mention Tavon Austin. He’s the most electric, remarkable and talented prep football player that I ever saw in person, a true marvel when he was here in Baltimore at Dunbar High School. How cool was it to return that kick 96 yards for a touchdown and rack up 227 yards earlier this season in Morgantown versus West Virginia, where he did so much damage in college?
Tavon was a little guy and watching him excel in college when I was younger affirmed that there would be a place for me one day in college football. I had an older cousin that played at West Virginia, I have a bunch of older family members that went there, so I’ve been watching that team since I was a little kid.
It was a big moment for me, with a bunch of my family in the stands, to have that type of game against West Virginia. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing and really mind-blowing.
Speaking of mind-blowing, let’s talk about the Monmouth game a few weeks back: 334 all-purpose yards, wheeling and dealing like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix. What does that feel like when you’re in a zone like that, being the littlest yet most explosive player on the field?
I just think about all the work I put in when nobody was watching. It’s definitely a good feeling. It was really a good week heading into that game, the whole team was locked in. We needed that win, and it felt good to go out there and show everybody what I could do.
When you were younger, your nickname was “The Flash.” At Towson, the defensive coordinator gave you a new nickname, “The Hummingbird.” You have any others?
No, just those. When I was little, I was quick, just like I am now. My mom started calling me “Flash” and then everybody else started calling me that.
In addition to speeding by defenses on the gridiron in high school, you were also a 1,000-point scorer in basketball. I bet you’re still dangerous off the dribble or running a fast break.
I’m a point guard, man, I can do it all. I can shoot, take you to the rim, feed my teammates, and I can strap up and play defense. I play some strong team ball, but can ball out when necessary if my team needs some buckets. On a good day, I can throw that ball up in the air, take flight and slam that thing down.
Last season, you established yourself as one of the best special teams players in the nation with 1,104 all-purpose yards and a threat to take it to the house every time you touched the ball. Was that a feeling of vindication for you, knowing that you always had the belief that it would one day come to fruition on the D-I level?
Last season set the tone for what I’m capable of doing in this league. It was a steppingstone and something to build off. I worked hard this offseason to come back and improve upon what I did last year.
From walk-on to All-American, which you’ll probably be named when the postseason awards get handed out, is a pretty cool story. They made a whole underdog movie about Rudy, and he only played one snap at Notre Dame! Hollywood might want to hear about the D’Ago Hunter story.
It’s been a rewarding journey and a true blessing. It hasn’t been easy, but I trusted myself, kept the faith and believed in the process. There were some hard times when I got down on myself, but I stuck it out. I’m proud of myself and am thankful for the people around me who love and encourage me.
At the game’s highest level, there’s always a roster spot for that undersized guy with some wiggle, bounce and speed that can change a game in an instant. What are your dreams as they relate to football?
I want to play professionally after college, whether it’s the NFL, the CFL or another pro league. Nowadays, there’s a lot of undersized guys putting in work in the NFL. They’re seeing us more and more as a threat as opposed to a liability just because we’re small.
Are people at Towson, whether it’s other students or professors that don’t follow the team, surprised to find out that you’re one of the best players in the country?
Some people who don’t know get really excited when they find out.
You have one more year of eligibility as the greatest local college football show on turf. What are some of your goals coming down the homestretch and for next year?
I just want to see us keep building and growing as a program. I’m committed to becoming a better player and being the best teammate I can be. I’d like to see us win the CAA before I’m done wearing a Towson uniform. I’d like to see us in the playoffs squaring up with the big boys in the FCS.
When you reflect on the season thus far, what makes you smile?
Probably the Monmouth game. With team success comes individual success. That was a great team win right there. I had some gaudy stats but it wasn’t just me, it was the entire team and the special teams unit because I’ve got ten other guys out there blocking for me. And I have to thank my coaches as well, for putting us in positions to be successful.
Villanova was a heavy favorite, but you guys handled them two weeks ago, and you did your thing with 172 all-purpose yards and a touchdown.
We just try to block out the outside noise. Last week we were really locked in. We had some guys miss practice time due to injuries and other people had to step up. We came together and got the job done.
I saw a high school recruiting profile that said you ran a 4.7 40-yard dash. Whoever put that up there is a liar because I’ve seen you burn up some defenses with athletes that can fly.
Yeah, I ran a 4.5 in high school, that was definitely a lie.
What’s at the forefront of your mind when you think about what you want to accomplish before the season is over?
Just to finish strong, keep the team together and locked in and keep working like we have been over the last few weeks.
Outside of football, what do like to do that gives you a similar thrill and excitement?
The weather is about to get cold, which means it’s time to go snowboarding. That’s one of my big things in the wintertime, I love going with some of my friends. And I really enjoy family time.
You’re majoring in Business Administration. When the air eventually comes out of the football, where are we going to see you down the road?
I’ll be helping you with your finances. I’m looking at a career in financial management, so I might be your personal financial assistant one day.