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Punter Hunter is lone Ute in Cougar family

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Chris Hunter's two big brothers, John and Brad, played football for BYU. Chris, his wife Karon and year-old son Christopher Joseph ("CJ") live in American Fork, smack-dab in Cougar country.

Chris is the punter for the University of Utah football team.See the conflict here?

Chris doesn't.

"No, not really," says the 24-year-old redshirt sophomore and returned LDS missionary. "My next-door neighbor is a big Ute fan. The church ward I live in is mostly BYU, but we're slowly turning it," Hunter says. "I got invaded this year with a bunch of neighborhood kids for my autograph and stuff.

"Red is leaking in down there."

There may be neighbors who dislike having a Ute among them, but, "I'm not home enough for them to see me," Hunter says. He's off to school in the morning. Then he studies, lifts weights, practices and gets home after most people have had dinner. Plus, he is gone most fall weekends.

Hunter will experience his second BYU-Utah game Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Cougar Stadium, where his brothers have played but he hasn't yet.

For 1996, Hunter averaged 39.6 yards per kick, with a long of 55 and another 50-yarder. In '97, Hunter has had punts of 80 (from the end zone at Tulsa) and 75 (vs. SMU) that rank fourth and fifth in Utah's record book, plus last Saturday's 60-yarder and six in the 50-59 range. He gets good height even on the long ones and says he has great faith in this season's Ute punt coverage team.

He would rather sit on the sideline Saturday, since that would probably mean the Utes were successfully moving the ball.

Hunter got heat from fans after last year's Ute loss when he punted four times for a 37-yard average. "To the untrained eye," he says, "they were ugly, low punts." But he was doing right, kicking away from returner extraordinaire James Dye. BYU ran back one punt for 3 yards.

Also last year, he says, some radio stations tried to make the BYU-Utah game into a Hunter family civil war, pitting John and Brad against Chris. Chris says that's just not the case.

The Hunters are from coastal Oregon, where the big rivalry is Oregon-Oregon State, and Dad was an OSU football/track athlete. Karon's family is from Tulsa, Okla. Her parents moved to American Fork after her brother and then Karon enrolled at Utah. She married Chris, and they moved into her parents' basement to cut costs and help care for her father, who has a progressively disabling nerve disorder.

Chris says he doesn't even know if his brothers, who live in the Salt Lake area, will attend Saturday's game. "They live here, but we're not the best communicators," he says with a bemused laugh. "We love each other, but we all have this phone deficiency."

Chris says he hasn't gotten them tickets. "I don't worry about that. They're BYU alums. They can get their own," he says. John (6-foot-6, 310 pounds), who went from BYU to the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, helped BYU's offensive linemen a few years ago. Brad (6-7, 280), who had a couple of NFL tryouts, still occasionally helps Y. punters. "They have loyalty to the school they played at," says Chris.

But at the same time, "My brothers are very supportive," Chris says. "They never razz on me about being a Ute."

In fact, they urged Chris (6-4, 224) to walk on at Utah after his mission to Wisconsin and his marriage.

Chris had been all-state at three positions (defensive end, punter, kicker), all-league in four (adding receiver) as a senior, the most-decorated football player ever at North Bend High. He was recruited but wanted a mission first.

John rehabbed an injury at the Ute training facility and got to know the coaches and program and thought it was a good match for Chris. Brad agreed. Chris walked on as a tight end, but an old knee injury scared doctors. He asked if he could punt, and coach Ron McBride immediately agreed. Chris says Brad had a similar situation at the Y. and was told he couldn't punt - a skill their father taught them as soon as they showed interest in football. Chris says that's why Brad favored Utah for him.

Despite brotherly advice and his own feeling that Utah "had been the most honest with me" when he was being recruited in high school, he hesitated to contact Utah about playing. Karon called for him, getting him an interview appointment, though she'd never seen him play. "She's a big push in my life," Hunter says fondly. "She's my best and worst critic."

She gave up school to work so they could afford walk-on ball for Chris. Now he is on scholarship. As a walk-on, he worked as an all-night video clerk and a night airport-shuttle van driver.

And he tried to learn proper punt form. Kicking was so easy for him - all three boys inherited strong legs and flexibility that allows for punting follow-through from their high-jumper father - that in high school, Chris was just told to blast away.

At Utah, he's learning technique - proper leg angle, toe-point on the follow-through, the right drop angle - but adrenalin gets in the way. That's why he's had trouble dropping short punts inside the 20-yard line this year. "In the last game, I barely touched the ball, and it went 45 yards," he says with amazement. Last year, he put 11 punts inside the 20 with only six touchbacks. "I was rusty; I hadn't punted in four years. I was a little passive, scared; I just had the nerves," he says. "This year my confidence is back, but I'm just learning to be a punter."