Justin Hunter and Derek Dooley on recuperating an ACL
The first thing Prentiss Waggner noticed about Justin Hunter was his height. The next thing he noticed was that Hunter didn't move like a tall guy.
That's what threw Waggner off when he first tried to cover his 6-foot-4 Tennessee teammate a couple of years ago in practice.
"He's so shifty for being that tall," Waggner said after Friday morning's football practice. "He's shifty like a 5-10 guy."
UT's cornerback has gotten to know Hunter's moves even better this spring. Both have been matched up repeatedly in passing drills while they're recovering from surgery.
"We talk a lot of trash," said Waggner, who had shoulder surgery. "You better bring your A game when you're on Justin."
The red jerseys Waggner and Hunter have been assigned for Saturday's scrimmage remind you that neither will be expected to bring his A game. Although they have made considerable progress post-surgery, they still won't be subjected to contact. So a tag will be as tough as it gets for Hunter if he catches a pass in limited scrimmage work.
That doesn't exactly get his adrenaline going.
"I think getting tagged is like flag ball," Hunter said. "I'm not here to play flag football, so if I get hit, I get hit. It's not like they're going to come at my legs because they know I'm hurt."
Good point. Not even Gregg Williams put a bounty on his own team's offensive players.
You can understand Hunter's desire for contact, which will provide final confirmation that he's all the way back from the season-ending knee injury he suffered last September in the opening minutes against Florida. Once that happens, UT's entire offense will look a lot healthier.
As well as Hunter had played in the first two games, his value to UT's offense wasn't fully realized until he went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The offense was so unproductive the rest of the afternoon, you would have thought 10 other offensive starters had torn ACLs simultaneously.
In a sport as injury-ridden as this one, players become conditioned to putting their fallen comrades behind and setting their sights on the task at hand. But UT's offense, particularly quarterback Tyler Bray, also was conditioned to relying on Hunter. Other than the losses of quarterbacks, few injuries have had more impact on the Vols.
Don't minimize the value of a healthy Waggner, either. He is Tennessee's most experienced and versatile defensive back. While he has moved back and forth between cornerback and safety the past three seasons, he has concentrated solely on cornerback in non-contact drills this spring. That has given him a close-up view of Hunter's progress.
"His straight-line speed is fine," Waggner said.
Hunter's cutting also is fine if you are the defensive back assigned to cover him.
"Basically, when I come out of a cut, it comes really slow," Hunter said. "When I am with defenders, it's hard for me to get open because they are all over me."
That's a temporary dilemma, UT trainers have assured Hunter. He's expected to be at full speed this summer.
"He's doing good," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "He's on track, but he's not 100 percent. He doesn't have his strength levels. He doesn't have his weight. I think all of that just has to come in time."
But Hunter's expectations are already in mid-season form.
When asked what he expected to get out of today scrimmage, he said, "Touchdowns and yards."
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or adamsj@knoxnews.
com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/johnadamskns.