New Tennessee football coach Butch Jones and his fast-paced offense will enter 2013 without its top receiver.
As expected, Justin Hunter appears to be on his way to the NFL draft.
Hunter, a junior, sent a one-word tweet Monday afternoon that announced, "Declared." He offered no elaboration but his subsequent interactions with fans indicated he was, in fact, forgoing his senior season of eligibility to declare for the NFL draft.
After suffering an ACL injury in 2011, Hunter led the Vols in receptions (73), receiving yards (1,083) and receiving touchdowns (nine) in 2012. He was among the SEC leaders in all categories.
Hunter will leave UT with the 11th-most receiving yards in school history (1,812) despite playing just two full seasons.
One of the best games of Hunter's career may have come before he suffered his injury in 2011. Against a Jones-coached Cincinnati team, Hunter had 10 catches for 156 yards and a touchdown.
Appearing on Monday night's "Vol Calls," Jones did not address Hunter's decision, but said he had spoken with each of the junior players who were considering leaving for the NFL.
"We talked about really creating their legacy going into their final year and getting the program back on track," Jones said. "We always talk about when you leave a program, is it a better place because you were a part of it?"
Jones said he also emphasized the importance of earning a degree.
"The life expectancy of an NFL player is only about three years," Jones said.
Two offensive linemen also used Twitter to announce their return to the Vols on Monday.
Junior Ja'Wuan James had indicated after the season that he intended to explore the NFL draft, especially after the departure of line coach Sam Pittman, with whom he had formed a close bond. Pittman was not retained as part of Jones' staff and was hired at Arkansas, where he'll work with former Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
"Blessed to have another year to get better and another opportunity at winning a championship. Gotta take advantage of it," James tweeted Monday.
James has started all 37 games of his college career at right tackle.
Meanwhile, junior lineman Zach Fulton also accepted and retweeted congratulations for his decision to stay, although he didn't formally confirm he would return.
Fulton has started 28 of the last 31 games at right guard and will help anchor the line under Jones and new coach line coach Don Mahoney in 2013.
Junior quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson have yet to announce their NFL intentions, although most expect them to depart. Bray said the decisions of his two talented junior receivers could factor in his choice.
Defensive lineman Daniel McCullers also is draft-eligible and has not commented publicly on his upcoming decision.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said last week that he sees Hunter as a potential second-round pick who could use another to year to recover from his ACL injury.
"This year he was good. He wasn't spectacular," Kiper said.
Kiper said he projects Patterson as a first-round pick. Bray could go in the second or third round, he said, although the quarterback position is "wide open" in the 2013 draft.
If Patterson joins Hunter in leaving for pro football, the Vols will have to significantly rebuild what was one of the league's top receiving corps. Tight end Mychal Rivera (36 catches for 562 yards) and Zach Rogers (32 catches for 491 yards), both seniors, combined with Patterson and Hunter for 26 of Tennessee's 35 passing touchdowns.
Freshman Alton "Pig" Howard was the only other UT receiver with double-digit receptions, and some of his 13 were on short pitches or shovel passes.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.