Justin Hunter does things most receivers can’t.
The next step is fine-tuning the aspects which don’t require the sophomore’s huge strides or gravity-defying leaping ability.
Hunter proved quickly during his first season with the Tennessee football team that his natural athleticism makes him a nightmare to match up against on the perimeter deep down the field, and it didn’t really require him to do a whole lot of learning to make big plays by running fast, jumping high and snagging balls defensive backs couldn’t reach. But to become an even more dangerous target, Hunter is having to learn how to work in tighter spaces.
“It really is important, because I know that everybody is going to try to stop the deep ball this year — just like they do in practice,” Hunter said after practice Thursday. “They’re always bracket-covering me on the deep ball, and I think that’s going to open up my deep ball again if I can get all the short routes down.
“They’re not difficult, it’s just that I’m so tall and lanky, I just have to be able to control my body to do some of those real quick routes. I’m a long-strider type of guy, and all the short stuff is going to be real new to me.”
The Vols were able to get plenty of production out of Hunter even without much variety in his game last season, and they played to his strengths as he piled up a staggering 25.9 yards per catch and scored seven touchdowns.
But with UT’s top three receivers from a year ago all gone thanks to graduation, it will be calling on Hunter to improve his reception total dramatically from 16 this fall — and if his average per catch dips a little, that could conceivably be a sign of progress.
“He also hasn’t mastered the long ball, either,” Vols coach Derek Dooley said. “You know, he really is starting all over. His thing is two-fold. One, it’s learning the craft of running routes, but two, it’s learning to play with a little more physicality. When defensive backs are putting their hands on him, (learning) what to do.
“So, he’s showing a lot of improvement and we’ve got to keep figuring out what he does well and try to get him the football because he’s a talented guy.”
Hunter also is still a skinny guy at 183 pounds, and with a 6-foot-4 frame, he’s a big target for defensive backs to attack in coverage near the line of scrimmage as well.
Fighting through physical coverage continues to be a focus of improvement for Hunter, and the ability to turn lengthy strides into short, choppy steps when he needs to is another part of the process of building him into a more complete package. But even without it, Hunter at least has an element to fall back on that most receivers can’t really offer.
“Randy Moss was a deep threat, but he did a lot of things other than run down the field and catch touchdown passes,” receivers coach Charlie Baggett said. “Blocking, running intermediate passes, going over the middle and catching the ball, I mean, there’s a lot of things that a so-called speed or down-the-field receiver can do to be a complete player. In order to be a complete player, you’ve got to be able to do that.
“We want to push all these guys to their limit, and I think Justin is the kind of kid that can take it.”
Hunter doesn’t appear to be opposed at all to the idea of working closer to the line of scrimmage and adding to his repertoire this spring. In fact, of his three catches in last week’s first scrimmage, none went for more than 15 yards.
But that certainly doesn’t mean he’s lost any of the skill that produced the comparisons with Moss in the first place.
“The deep ball, everybody is scared of it,” Hunter said. “But I can say that nobody is a decoy in our offense, so I’m going to be doing a lot of short stuff, too.”
Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward.