Cornerback Michael Hunter emerges as star of Giants' training camp

Once little-known, Michael Hunter appears firmly entrenched as the team's fourth cornerback and likely will see a good amount of playing time. Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- If you weren’t paying really, really close attention to the New York Giants last season, the name Michael Hunter might not ring a bell. He wasn't a hot prospect or even a known name coming out of college. He bounced between the Giants' active roster and practice squad in 2016, depending on the week, and made cameos in just two regular-season games.

This year Hunter should become a much more recognizable name after emerging as one of the stars of training camp, which officially ended Tuesday when veterans were allowed to leave the team hotel and return home. Hunter appears firmly entrenched as the team’s fourth cornerback and is an injury away from playing a substantial role in a defense loaded with talent.

Considering the physicality of the position, there is a good chance Hunter will receive a chunk of playing time at cornerback this season. Backups Coty Sensabaugh and Trevin Wade played a combined 468 defensive snaps last season.

Hunter played 17 snaps. That will change barring something unexpected between now and the start of the season in less than a month.

Hunter worked with the first-team defense Thursday while starting cornerback Eli Apple dealt with an ankle injury. Much as he’s done throughout the summer, Hunter handled himself admirably and impressively.

The second-year player out of Oklahoma State ran stride for stride down the left sideline with wide receiver Roger Lewis on one play and intercepted QB Geno Smith, pinning the ball one-handed to his body. It was a continuation of what Hunter has done most of the spring and summer, when he’s rarely given up plays.

“Yeah, he had a nice day [Thursday],” coach Ben McAdoo said. “He made a nice play on the ball, couple flashes on the ball from press coverage on a go route, which is tough to do and encouraging to see.”

Hunter, 24, has gone from being an undrafted free agent last year to being key depth at a position where it was sorely needed. Sensabaugh and Wade left this offseason, and veteran defensive back Leon Hall was not re-signed. One year has made a big difference in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's “unique” defense (per Hunter's description), a defense players often find difficult to digest.

It’s apparent in the way Hunter is playing. He appears more muscular and is playing more physically at the line of scrimmage. At 6-foot, he has good size, and perhaps plays even taller. He isn't the same player who was fighting for a roster spot last season.

“Experience in those two games last year helped me a whole bunch,” Hunter said. “It made me put in perspective how I had to get in the playbook and get comfortable out there and play fast. And make sure I know the defense inside and out. I think that is the biggest difference.”

Hunter believes he's playing faster and reacting rather than thinking. It didn’t hurt that he spent much of last season working on the scout team opposite Odell Beckham Jr., one of the league's best wide receivers. That's an experience he believes was beneficial.

Hunter spent his offseason working out at Louisiana-Lafayette with a close friend, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Paul Turner. It paid off. Hunter has come back a different and more confident player.

“Every day we were together, going out there and competing against a wide receiver in the NFL and just working on those small things,” Hunter said. “I could tell him what he needs to do better and he could tell me what I can do better with my hands. Those things can go a long way.”

Hunter’s development likely played a part this offseason in the Giants' decision to stand pat with what many considered a shallow group of cornerbacks. In the spring, Spagnuolo noted that Hunter really stood out.

The summer has only reinforced what the Giants saw earlier this year. Hunter played well from start to finish during training camp and showed well in the preseason opener. So far it has been an encouraging summer.

“He is a young player that is making gains,” McAdoo said.

So much so that Hunter has stood out almost on a daily basis at training camp. The Giants might just have something here with a young cornerback who has the size and physicality they demand from the position.