A literal one on the knee of his star wide receiver surely wasn’t what the Tennessee coach had in mind.
A season that started with so much promise for Justin Hunter is over after two games and four plays, and surgery to correct a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee will officially end what had been a breakout sophomore campaign.
“It’s a big deal,” fellow wideout Da’Rick Rogers said after the 33-23 loss at No. 15 Florida on Saturday. “Justin’s a big playmaker. You take him out of the game, you can easily just take over 100 yards, over eight catches and a few touchdowns off the board.
“I just told him, ‘Hey, bro, we’re going to be all right. You’ve just got to fight hard, we’ll be all right, we’ll try to pull through this game without you. You’ve just got to make sure you get healthy.’”
Hunter won’t do that in time to help UT (2-1, 0-1 SEC) again this fall, taking away one of the Vols’ most dangerous weapons and also decreasing the depth at a position that had relied heavily on the talented and dangerous combination he formed with Rogers.
That’s obviously not encouraging news for the Vols in the short term, particularly since the style of their offense appeared to change significantly without the threat Hunter provided while piling up a conference-leading 302 yards on 16 catches with two touchdowns in the first two games of the season.
But in the long run, Hunter is expected to be able to participate in spring practice early next year. And assuming he returns as strong as he was before crumpling on the turf following a 12-yard catch on Saturday, the Vols could still have the makings of a well-rounded receiving corps moving forward with freshmen DeAnthony Arnett and Vincent Dallas now stepping up to fill the void in Hunter’s absence.
“First of all, you hate it for the kid,” Dooley said. “It just makes you sick when you see it because you know probably what happened. Then you hate it for the team. It’s an energy-zapper, but you’ve got to turn around and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got four quarters of football to play, we don’t have time to sulk.’
“We weren’t prepared for it, and it’s not like we had time to get ready. Everybody had to change a little bit, and all the plays you had for him, now someone else is running them.”
It may take several of the options UT has on hand to replace the production Hunter was providing, and it did get a look at them in a tough situation against the Gators.
Arnett came off the bench to lead the team with eight catches and finished the game with 59 yards. Tight end Mychal Rivera continued his emergence as a viable target and added five catches for 71 yards and a touchdown. Dallas chipped in a catch, sophomore Matt Milton added another — and Rogers is still healthy and likely to take some pressure off the others by commanding opposing defenses’ attention.
But whatever the Vols elect to do, one sliver of a silver lining is that it will have extra time to figure it out with an off date coming up before facing lightly-regarded Buffalo the following week.
“It was good to have (Arnett) out there,” Dooley said. “He’s going to have to play a lot more now. He caught eight passes, a bunch of little short stuff. He’s going to have to grow up, Vincent Dallas is going to have to grow up.
“The things that started getting us (into trouble against Florida) were some of the pressures. When they bring the heat, (Hunter) is a big part of our blitz control. So now you’ve got different guys in there that you have to throw to.”
That is officially the case for the Vols until next spring.