AP Top 25 College Football
Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter felt a snap and heard a pop. Then came the stinging sensation.
Tests wouldn't confirm until later that he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament, but Hunter knew immediately that his day and likely his season were finished.
That was nearly one year ago in Gainesville, Fla., when on the fourth play of Tennessee's first drive, the Vols' season took a turn from which the team never fully recovered.
"That's a game that I left on the field and I wish I could have it back," Hunter said Tuesday. "Ever since that day, I've been waiting to play them again."
Hunter will get his chance Saturday (TV: ESPN, 6 p.m.) when 23rd-ranked Tennessee (2-0) plays No. 18 Florida (2-0) at Neyland Stadium.
The junior from Virginia Beach, Va., has quickly erased any doubts that he might be rusty after nearly a year away from football. Through two games, Hunter has 17 catches for 219 yards, including a three-touchdown performance last Saturday against Georgia State. He's reached 17 receptions more quickly than any other Tennessee player in history save Johnny Mills, who caught 17 passes in two games in 1966.
"The first game I was trying to do too much," Hunter said. "In the second game, I was more comfortable and focused in. I think I've grown up (since last year), so I'm more mature. I'm running routes better."
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said the injury and its aftermath — a 3-7 record after the 2-0 start — has been rehashed so many times that there wasn't much for him to add. But Hunter patiently fielded questions about his torn ACL, which occurred when he landed awkwardly after a 12-yard reception.
"I knew immediately it was serious as soon as I landed," Hunter said. "I fell to the ground and it started stinging, so I was like, 'Yeah, this (is serious).'
"I was going through the season real good and it was just a setback for me."
On Saturday, he'll face an aggressive Gators defense that is unlike any of Tennessee's first two opponents. Against Georgia State, defensive backs gave Hunter a sizable cushion to guard against big plays. North Carolina State was more apt to play zone. Florida will be up in Hunter's face.
"It's not about physicality," Dooley said. "Those guys at N.C. State were physical players. But it's style and philosophy. Are they hands-on, deny-the-ball? Or are they more zone, read-the-quarterback? (Florida) is hands-on, deny-the-ball."
Hunter, who stands 6-foot-4 but is only 200 pounds, said opposing defenses sometimes underestimate his toughness.
"That's an extra motivation and a boost for me," he said. "I'm tall, but I'm also skinny. When they come up to press me, I'm like, 'Thank you.' That's a gift for me."
Hunter said the advice he received during his rehab was aimed more at his mental health than physical health. He found the best way to deal with a long absence was not to be absent.
"Don't try to keep everything to yourself and bottled inside, because that can hurt you in the long run," Hunter said. "When you're hurting you don't want to be around anybody. But I tried to just talk with people and stay around the team. I think that was the biggest thing for me."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.