Justin Hunter on leadership
Just a couple months ago, Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers were complementary pieces.
Granted, those pieces were exciting, athletically gifted and already delivering big plays - though they certainly weren't Tennessee's main focus as true freshmen.
But with the three top pass-catchers having graduated and the UT roster not exactly bursting with targets, the rising sophomores have suddenly become the old hands through just two practices this spring.
"I think it's a big change since the big seniors left," Hunter said after Wednesday's workout. "But I think me and Da'Rick and the other young receivers are coming along really good. It's time to step up as a young group of receivers. Coach ( Derek Dooley) depends on us to do that.
"We're the teachers now instead of the students."
The early experience the tandem picked up a year ago certainly has given them some knowledge to pass on to early-enrollee Vincent Dallas and a handful of other receivers yet to see significant action, but Hunter and Rogers also have plenty of learning to do themselves.
Hunter loaded up the highlight reel with seven touchdowns, often in leaping, dramatic fashion. And Rogers used his combination of speed and power as a dangerous runner on the end-around while also chipping in two more scoring grabs for the Vols. But Dooley rarely seemed impressed with the route-running of either player a year ago, and the ways the Vols could use Hunter and Rogers in the offense was limited because of it.
Now they're faced with not only making their own strides, but also providing an example of how others should be doing it as well.
"You know, it's been tough, but we're getting used to it," Rogers said. "We're going out there and having to study all the information and know it and have to know other positions to help other freshmen receivers to let them know - really we have to take the exact same role that (Denarius Moore) and (Gerald Jones) had when they helped us out.
"I mean, it's all happened early for us. It happened since camp last year, and they made us step up in training camp. It's really just the same thing repeating over again."
Repetition is a good thing for Hunter and Rogers though, especially as they build their repertoire with an emphasis on short routes, breaking quickly off the ball and cleaning up their technique.
The Vols are obviously going to need more than a combined 27 catches and 582 yards as they move on without Jones, Moore and tight end Luke Stocker. And while Hunter and Rogers still have ample time before they have to top those numbers, the early returns have already been positive.
"We need them to grow up in a hurry, we need them to be able to perform when things don't go their way early or when things aren't nice and neat," Dooley said. "When you're young, generally when things are going good, you roll pretty good. But when things get a little edgy, defenders out there holding you, grabbing you, not getting balls, you've got to learn how to stay with it and play out of it. That will take a long time.
"But we're putting everything on them, and those guys are doing really well right now. Each day there's more and more and more and more, so we're not really limiting Tyler (Bray) and Da'Rick and Justin. . . . This spring is going to be for really trying to put as much as we can on them to see how they respond."
And in the process, it will add to the lesson plan the sophomores can put together for their even younger teammates in the fall.