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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
BYU linebacker Shane Hunter celebrates with fans in the end zone after the Cougars recorded a safety against Wyoming. Hunter is a former walk-on who became a starter.

BYU middle linebacker Shane Hunter was tired and winded in the third quarter of the BYU-Utah game at Rice-Eccles Stadium when he dropped back into zone coverage expecting Terrance Cain to pass.

The thought that took over his mind is that it was third down and he had to get the defense off the field with a stop.

Hunter was dogged and a little exhausted when he saw the pass come his way, and the instincts that come from hundreds of hours of playing and practicing football took over.

Hunter intercepted the pass, secured the ball in one motion and took off for the end zone. Within 15 yards, though, his legs felt like tree trunks and the end zone looked further away with each second. Cain had a great angle on him. He felt if he could get a glimpse of Andrew Rich on his right wing, he'd lateral the ball to him, but he didn't. Later, film sessions showed Rich was trailing him on his left.

Hunter knew Cain had more energy and his only move was to try and break Cain's tackle, so he tried to stiff-arm Cain, but the Ute quarterback took his legs out and he was done.

"It was OK. We ended up scoring anyway," said Hunter.

That single play, chiseled from a segment in time, is a highlight for Hunter, who's living the dream of playing the game he loves. It will be seared on his brain for all time.

For a guy who walked on at BYU in 2008 from Snow College and spent the last two years doing whatever he was asked before he was given a scholarship last spring, it will do.

Next Saturday, Hunter will start for the first time in a bowl game. That his bowl gifts and experience will come in the Albuquerque Bowl and not the Fiesta, Rose or Las Vegas bowls doesn't matter. For a guy who just wanted a chance to prove himself, whose team was 1-4 at the end of September, who was on special teams last season, it is a gift he's grateful for.

In a sense, Hunter represents the spirit of BYU's entire football team that left Las Vegas last year victors over Oregon State but fell on rough times this season before finishing with four wins in its last six games.

"I think it's going to be a blast to play again, especially for us seniors to have one more game together," said Hunter. "For our team, it's a chance to set the tone for next year. To go out there and execute, play hard, have fun, it will start us up for winter workouts, set us up for spring and summer and next year."

Hunter had a front seat to a remarkable turnaround for BYU, especially on defense. He was in the middle of the action where games are won and lost, and he witnessed a transformation that is almost inexplicable.

After their Oct. 1 loss at Utah State, the Cougars' defense ranked 120th in the nation in rushing defense, 85th in pass efficiency defense, 101st in total defense, 87th in scoring defense and 28th in pass defense.

Today, that defense — minus three starters — ranks 61st in rushing defense, 32nd in pass efficiency defense, 33rd in total defense, 32rd in scoring defense and 21st in pass defense. Since Oct. 1, BYU's rush defense has been among the nation's top three.

"We had a lot of good games, especially after we turned the season around," Hunter said. "I really loved playing in the Utah game. I felt our defense played one of the best games of the season. They never drove the field on us for a score. Our secondary played great, our front guys got pressure, and it was a blast.

"Even the TCU game, although it didn't turn out as well as we planned, we came out as a defense and did our best and took it to them. We had some breakdowns but we played hard, we were physical and brought it the whole game."

Hunter credits Cougars head coach Bronco Mendenhall for BYU's turnaround.

"Using his personality and instilling it in us, he made us feel like we are going to go out there and we are going to give everything we have every single play and we are not going to quit," Hunter said. "That is what he brought to practice, and it showed on Saturdays. I thought we had a good defense at the first of the season, but we didn't play like we did at the end."

A one-year starter at middle "mike" linebacker, Hunter says BYU has plenty of talent next year in his absence as a one-and-done guy.

"You've got Zack Stout, (USC transfer) Uona Kaveinga and Iona Pritchard due off his mission. They will be solid," Hunter said.

It's been a long time (2002) since Hunter finished his high school career at Idaho Falls High as the 5A defensive player of the year and mulled an offer from Boise State to walk on there. He didn't have a lot of options. He did have some offers from Division II and III schools, even after he finished playing at Snow with some high school buddies. It is at that point he felt strongly he should apply to attend BYU and he sought out the staff to walk on.

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But with an LDS mission to North Carolina behind him and a decision to walk on at BYU now paying its final dividends, Hunter is grateful for the ride.

He is married to the former Carrie Draper and is finishing a degree in exercise science.

"I feel it is a great opportunity to be here. I've really grown as a person; it's been awesome," he said. "I love playing football and contributing to the team. It's a bigger responsibility than I had last year on special teams. It's been a dream come true and a lot of fun."

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com