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Ja'Wuan James prepares for Buffalo's Khalil Mack
Two weeks into the season, Charlie Baggett talked glowingly about how much watching sophomore wide receiver Justin Hunter progress "excited" him as a coach.
Four offensive plays into the Vols' 33-23 loss at Florida, the Tennessee wide receivers coach was helpless as he watched Hunter land awkwardly, writhe in pain and limp off the field with a torn ACL.
The immediate disappointment from Baggett, whom CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson promptly spotted shaking his head after a conversation with UT head athletic trainer Jason McVeigh, was obvious and understandable, just like it was for anyone on the Vols' roster.
But for Baggett, the pain lasted just a little longer.
"It took me a while. Justin's one of my favorites," Baggett said after Wednesday's practice. "It's unfortunate that it happened, but we have to move on and he'll be back, he'll come back strong.
Eleven days after the injury, Hunter underwent successful surgery Wednesday to repair the ligament. He was seemingly in good spirits shortly after the procedure, joking about the quality of hospital food on his Twitter account, and he's expected to be back in time for spring football.
"Moving on" has been a common phrase echoed from UT players and coaches during the bye week and the days leading up to Saturday's return to Neyland Stadium (TV: CSS, 12:30 p.m.) against Buffalo. How exactly the Vols plan to do it from a personnel and schematic standpoint remains a bit of a mystery because Hunter, as Baggett said Wednesday, was "unique."
"The team knows that Justin was a big part of what we do and who we are," Baggett said. "Somebody's got to step up."
Baggett considers himself to be fully recovered from Hunter's injury. A 34-year coaching veteran, Baggett said he's only seen one of his players go down the way Hunter did — Webster Slaughter, 1983, Houston Oilers — so it was a relatively new experience for him.
Now, though, Baggett said he is excited to see how his young receivers will handle the pressure. That's exactly what he told them during a meeting before Wednesday's practice.
"I think I'm going to challenge them a little bit," he said. "We'll see who responds. It's going to be interesting and fun for me to stand over there on the sidelines and see young guys perform."
With junior Zach Rogers sliding over from his normal role in the slot to the X position vacated by Hunter, opportunities are expected to abound for freshmen Vincent Dallas and DeAnthony Arnett.
In the immediate aftermath of Hunter's injury, Arnett seemingly made the biggest jump, hauling in his first career catch in the second quarter and grabbing seven more to finish with eight receptions for 59 yards.
Quarterback Tyler Bray's consistent connections with Arnett were similar to how often he looked for Hunter, but the yards gained, of course, were not. Hunter averaged 18.5 yards per catch and had 11 of his 17 catches go for more than 10 yards. Arnett, meanwhile, had six of his eight receptions go for fewer than 10.
"We saw some things in high school and we saw some things in early fall camp that lead us to believe he can do a lot more things," Baggett said. "You can't give it to them all at one time, you spoon-feed them and that's what we're doing.
"That's the exciting part."
Dallas, also a freshman who is listed behind Da'Rick Rogers at the "Z," caught his first career pass on the same drive Hunter went down with his injury, but wasn't able to add to the total. An early enrollee, Dallas has been on the field plenty when the Vols go with five wide receivers, and his playing time is understandably expected to increase now that UT boasts one less target for Bray to find.
Baggett said he's been communicating with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to figure out the remaining receivers' strengths, weaknesses and plays that maximize their respective abilities. That, Baggett said, is "part of coaching," which, again, excites the 58-year-old coach.
Chaney, meanwhile, has bristled at questions posed about how the Vols planned to replace Hunter's production. Pressed about the issue Wednesday, Chaney sarcastically joked that he didn't recall when Hunter was injured before saying he's "moved on from that."
Chaney said nothing much should change from a X's and O's standpoint, either.
"I feel like we're trying to still run the routes that our receivers do best and put them in those positions," Chaney said. "I feel schematically we're going out and executing our plays.
"Tyler can throw an accurate football. You don't have to be real open for him. He can stick the ball in there. We keep increasing his accuracy and his ability to play and make plays, and (if) everybody else does what they need to do, I think we'll be OK."