Tennessee Stat Book
There's a point where the mind games can become counterproductive.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley draws the line when it pertains to over-thinking wide receiver Justin Hunter's role in the UT offense.
Hunter caught six of the 17 passes Tyler Bray completed last week against Montana. He was targeted a number of other times and his 146 receiving yards, 81 of which came on a long catch-and-run touchdown, made up nearly half of Bray's 293 passing yards.
Had the game been close for all four quarters, Hunter could have flirted with team records.
With no shortage of Hunter highlights to analyze, it's expected that Cincinnati will devote plenty of attention to the sophomore at Neyland Stadium on Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 3:30 p.m.). For some coaches, that might prompt the spawning of a backup plan that involves other members of the offense to expose the areas where defensive resources are limited.
Dooley, though, doesn't see the need to overcomplicate things. Hunter might just be that good.
"What I don't want to do is say 'Hey, we don't want to show a tendency that we're throwing to Justin Hunter' and then throw it to these other guys and they make 5 yards," Dooley said. "I'd rather just feed it to the guy as long as he can catch it.
"It's kind of my backyard in me. 'That guy's good, throw it to him.' Well, they got two on him. 'Well, give it a shot anyway.' If they stop it, then we'll think about something else."
When Hunter arrived at UT as a freshman, he immediately took on the nickname "Bones" because he was easily the leanest player on the team. One year later, Hunter can still afford to go back for seconds and thirds at dinner, but he's somewhere between 10 to 15 pounds heavier than when he caught 16 passes for 457 yards and seven touchdowns in 2010.
"I think I'm more powerful than I (was) last year, because of the lifting and gaining weight," Hunter said, who recently admitted that he ate cookies during last week's lightning delay. "It's not hurting me at all. I'm still fast in moving down the field and keeping my vertical speed and stuff.
"I keep telling people I'm going to trick them one time. I'm going to go up to them like I'm going to juke them, and I'm going to end up running them over."
Hunter doesn't have the menacing presence that 215-pound sophomore Da'Rick Rogers brings across the middle, and he probably never will. But Hunter's role in the UT offense has expanded at the same rate as his waist line.
As was displayed when he raced across the middle to catch a 15-yard slant from Bray before turning it into an 81-yard touchdown, he's not just "the deep guy" anymore.
"His capacity is unlimited," wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett said. "I hate to get too excited about young guys too early but he's a guy that really excites me. I think he can handle a lot, I really do.
"I'm excited about the fact that we can give him more. We move him in the slot, we put him outside, we put him in the one-back, one-receiver set. He can do a lot of things. I think he can handle it."
Hunter is the "X" receiver, which is "mostly stationary" before the snap, Baggett said. The "Z" receiver, which is where Rogers lines up, is the one who is typically moving all over the place before the snap.
But Hunter, in an attempt to dissuade defenses from "keying on him," won't always be standing still, Baggett said. He's more than just the "X."
"Justin is maturing at a fast pace," Baggett said. "I can say that his improvement from last year, at the end of last year to the present, has been tremendous. If he continues to get better and improve, I think that the sky is the limit for him.
"The good thing about him is he listens and he studies the game and he's going to get better. It's exciting for me."
Though Dooley made light of the hypothetical situation where defenses double- or triple-team Hunter, UT's third and fourth options behind Hunter and Rogers will need to do more than they did against Montana. Zach Rogers caught one pass and freshmen Vincent Dallas and DeAnthony Arnett were barely targeted while Bray devoted most of his attention to the sophomore duo.
Just like it did for Hunter and Rogers to receive opportunities behind Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore last season, it's going to take time before UT truly has a slew of reliable backup options behind its top targets.
"I'd like to see them play more but they're in the same situation that Da'Rick and Justin were in a year ago," Baggett said. "Slowly brought them along and got their feet wet. Then at the end of the year they had more playing time."
For now, Dooley's willing to take his chances with Hunter, no matter how much he's blanketed by defenders.
"We're going to keep trying to feature him as long as he keeps giving us production back," Dooley said. "He's got a chance to be a really good one."