Hunter, Rogers see room to improve
By Andrew Gribble
Charlie Baggett laughs about it now, but there weren't many smiles to be found after he summoned Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers to the film room midway through last season.
Focused on developing his freshman receivers into future SEC stars, the Tennessee wide receivers coach showed the pair clip after clip of Alabama's Julio Jones and Georgia's A.J. Green piling up catches and touchdowns throughout their respective sophomore and junior seasons.
Both Jones and Green were instant stars as freshmen, but the progress they made in years two and three of their college careers solidified their status as top 10 selections in this year's NFL Draft.
That's all Baggett was trying to display, but it inadvertently rubbed Hunter and Rogers the wrong way.
"Julio Jones is one of my top receivers that I do enjoy watch playing," Rogers said. "But he showed us Julio Jones against us. That really was a sore subject."
Jones caught an Alabama record 12 passes for 221 yards against the Vols last season. Green, in his last two games against the Vols, had a combined 14 catches, 156 yards and a touchdown.
Needless to say, there were plenty of highlights to choose from.
Both Jones and Green went from great to elite by the time they went pro. Baggett and the Vols will settle for good to great from their top two receivers this season.
"You never know when players are going to mature and develop into what they need to be," Baggett said. "As freshmen, I think Da'Rick and Justin came along well from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. If they can make those kind of strides and that kind of jump in progress this year early, I think the sky's the limit for them."
Though it's largely an apples-to-oranges comparison, Baggett said he sees similarities between how Rogers and Hunter have approached practice as sophomores and how Cris Carter and Randy Moss did during Baggett's time with the Minnesota Vikings.
Carter provided a stabilizing, veteran presence for the sometimes incorrigible Moss. He was able to maximize Moss' potential in practice settings by challenging him in drills, riding him when he ran a route poorly and talking plenty of trash whenever he bested him on a certain play, Baggett said.
Rogers and Hunter both admitted Sunday that there has been plenty of chatter tossed back an forth since the spring, when the onus was placed squarely on their shoulders to fill the void left by departed seniors Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones.
"It motivates them to get going," Baggett said. "I think it's good for each other."
It all starts and finishes with the catch chart, which tracks every single pass thrown their way during practice. Before Monday's practice, Hunter had caught 95 percent of his passes, a total that led the team. Rogers was in second with 91.
"Every day he's always creeping up on me and telling me I'm coming for you," Hunter said.
Made aware that Hunter was telling reporters about his advantage, Rogers grimaced.
"Everywhere I'm going I'm hearing about the catch chart," Rogers said. "He keeps bringing it up because right now he's at the top.
"He has about four drops all camp. I have eight, so I guess, right now, his hands are better than mine."
Within the confines of their personal competition, Rogers has been playing catch-up to Hunter since both arrived at UT. While Rogers struggled to find the field until the latter part of the season, Hunter was one of the SEC's top freshmen, catching 16 passes for 415 yards and seven touchdowns.
Rogers, who is the first to admit that his work ethic wasn't initially at the level it should have been, caught 11 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns, chipped in with 117 rushing yards and also earned a spot on the kickoff return team.
Watching Hunter, who had significantly less hype surrounding his recruitment than he did, and then seeing where players such as Jones and Green landed professionally, made it a no-brainer for Rogers.
He had to watch and learn from some of the SEC's best -- even if they were improving right before his eyes at UT's expense.
"It can happen," Rogers said. "I really know what it takes. You grow up watching them and you go into the same league with them. Then you watch and see where they're at now.
"It really gives you hope."