Gentle giant dominates gridiron: Former Thunderbirds O-lineman Salerno earns scholarship to attend, play football at Jamestown
BULLHEAD CITY — Former T-birds left tackle Hunter Salerno entered his freshman season at Mohave High School as a gentle giant, and he transformed himself into collegiate offensive lineman four years later.
After arriving in Jamestown, N.D., on Friday afternoon, Salerno will be attending classes at the University of Jamestown on Aug. 25, and he will start playing football for the NAIA Great Plains Athletic Conference Jimmies when practice begins Monday.
“It’s known as the powerhouse,” said assistant coach Joseph Federico, who also recruited Salerno. “It’s the conference you want to be in.”
Salerno said he did not expect to play college football when he was a Mohave freshman, but that mindset changed quickly.
“It was a dream of mine,” Salerno said. “I knew that once I got into my sophomore year that I had to work extra hard and push myself to get better to get a chance to get a scholarship.”
“It was a last-minute deal, the coach contacted him and he got a pretty good deal to go on up to North Dakota,” said T-birds head coach Rudy Olvera by cell phone as Salerno signed his letter of intent July 24. “We are in the business as teachers to open the doors for all our students to (go to) the next level of education but when one of our guys gets to continue his education and play this great game of ours it makes it all worth it.
“We think that Hunter is destined for big things — no pun intended — and only look forward to his development as a player and, most importantly, a man from Mohave.”
Salerno said 97 percent of his collegiate and housing expenses will be covered by scholarship.
Jamestown contacted the former Mohave lineman first — mostly by email, Salerno said.
Even though Salerno signed late, he and the Jimmies had been in contact for a good while.
“I am on a recruiting site and they contacted me (about) giving me a scholarship at the beginning of my senior year of football,” he added.
Salerno will be entering Jamestown at a chiseled — by linemen’s standards — 6-foot-6, 305 pounds, which marked the culmination of his four-year transformation. He was 6-3, 250 as a freshman, 6-3, 280 as a sophomore and 6-5, 315 as a junior.
He bench pressed 180 pounds and squatted 225 as a freshman, 195 and 280 as a sophomore, 215 and 315 as a junior, and 250 and 395 as a senior, Salerno said.
His added strength helped him earn Arizona Interscholastic Association 4A Grand Canyon Region Second-Team accolades at offensive line following his senior year, as well as getting the attention of the Jimmies’ coaching staff.
Salerno said Federico told him he is a “great fit to (do) what they want in the program, and he really liked what I did on and off the field.”
Mohave and Jamestown had one huge thing in common, which was playing smash-mouth football.
“We really liked him, we watched some film, he’s a big kid, he can move around, and he fits perfectly into what we do here at Jamestown,” Federico said. “We believe in running the ball and kind of force our will on people.
“And that’s what Hunter is.
“He can move some people, so that’s how we saw him and we liked him.”
The T-birds averaged 317 yards rushing yards per game in 2016 and they averaged 272 per game in 2017.
Mohave has been one of the top high school teams in rushing yards in all AIA classifications during the last two seasons, and Salerno had at least a half-dozen T-bird linemen to practice with and against, which has helped him develop into a nastier lineman.
Yet Salerno could not point out one teammate who helped him the most.
“Everyone,” Salerno said. “There was not just one; we are a family, so everyone improved everybody.”
Salerno did pinpoint the moment when he began to fit in as a major contributor.
When asked when did he say to himself, ‘Wow, I’m really making a difference,’ Salerno said, “When I started to pancake people and taking their helmets off and not getting pushed around.”
He said that first pancake block occurred against River Valley High School during his junior year.
Salerno’s ability to move defenders backward opened Federico’s eyes.
“When we were watching recruits and kids nowadays, it’s kind of hard because you don’t know how they’re coached, you don’t know what they’re being told,” Federico said. “But what we’ve seen from Hunter is that he moves people. I think it says a lot when you watch someone’s film and they’re just dominant.
“When he is physically moving the other guy across from him, that’s something that we like to see, and that’s something that shows us that he’s been successful at the level that he’s at.”
Federico said he also looks for his recruits to be nimble for their size. “I think Hunter moves pretty well,” he said.
Salerno’s road to success was not instanteous.
The unassuming former T-bird always had the size to play on the offensive line, but he needed to get meaner if he was going to have any chance to excel.
“Talking to my dad (Michael Salerno Jr.) and the coaches and doing a lot of drills with hitting” was how he toughened himself up physically and mentally, Salerno said.
Olvera described Salerno’s first season as a T-bird.
“Hunter came to us with the size, but he was still young so we just asked him to take it easy and buy into what we are doing — keeping it simple for him until his mentality caught up to his physical size,” Olvera said. “He also found out when we got into competition with other schools (that) he was not always the biggest guy out there, so he had to put in the work and he did.”
Salerno thanked the Mohave coaching staff for helping him get to where he is today.
“The coaches never gave up on me, so they taught me to never give up and always be a gentleman and that if I want something, work hard to get it,” Salerno said.
Salerno said Mohave offensive coordinator Adam King helped him improve as a football player “the most.”
While the Mohave coaching staff guided Salerno, he was the one who had to put in the work.
“Hunter realized that a lot of off-the-field work goes into playing this game,” Olvera said. “Weight-room work, film breakdown and classroom game prep, being accountable for one’s self and thinking about the team, rather than individually, changed the way Hunter approached things especially his senior year, which allowed us to really rely on him — and we did. Running behind him and (former T-birds offensive lineman) Gabe (Rincones) made us look real good most Friday nights.”
Federico expects Salerno to quickly become a part of the Jimmies’ future.
“We have a big senior class at the line position,” Federico said. “Both of our tackles are seniors, then we got some older guys who are playing interior for us, but we see Hunter being a guy who will make a contribution sooner rather than later.
“We see him early on in his career making an impact, but once these guys graduate and once they get out of the program, we have a good nucleus of young guys, including Hunter and a couple of other guys, so I think he’s going to be pretty good for us.”
Federico is eager for Salerno to arrival.
“I can’t wait to get him on campus,” Federico said, “and I can’t wait for him to be a Jimmie.”
Federico’s waiting is over — he has arrived and is raring to go.
MHS’ rushing stats courtesy of MaxPreps.