A year after injury, Tennessee's Justin Hunter eager to take field against Florida

WR 'waiting to play' Florida after tearing ACL last year

Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter (11) goes down during first quarter against the Florida Gators in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on the University of Florida campus Saturday, Sep. 17, 2011. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Michael Patrick, copyright © 2011

Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter (11) goes down during first quarter against the Florida Gators in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on the University of Florida campus Saturday, Sep. 17, 2011. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

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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.

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Comments » 16

sameolvolalum writes:

Revenge of JH! 'Can't wait!

mlynn1 writes:

Good luck Justin, hope you have a great game in the Volunteer victory!!

BIVOLAR_BEARE writes:

Just try not to jump at all..GBO!!!

Fryinpansvols writes:

Thats a very mature person who will go far in life no matters what he does. He most definitely will have a shot to play on Sundays if he can stay healthy. He has helped bring back Wide Receiver U to Tennessee. Good luck Justin and go kick some Gator tail!

willkev65 writes:

It was pretty stressful watchin him against nc state. Hopefully the equipment manager has gotten some longer pants for him; so knee pads will actually cover his knees. prolly have a under pad for the rebuilt one aswell. those gators tend to play dirty if they're gettin beat...

PUL4VOLS writes:

It's time to Do It JH and you can. Gonna be big opportunities come Saturday night. It has been a long year but the time to shine is almost here. GO JH, GO VOLS!

6972 writes:

Team has great potential. Hope the 12th man (The Vol fans) contribute with a noise so loud that Briskell can't hear himself pass gas.
Lizards will not be happy that Hunter is back. Vols win!

anythinGOrange writes:

It sounds like Justin has put this injury in his tail lights. He's right, an injury can/will do more damage to the psyche if allowed. I think he's accepted the fact that he had a good fall camp and has proven his knee (and his psyche) can hold up to the competition of an SEC season.

V-O-L-S GO VOLS GO!!!

Richmonds_Wannabe_Brother writes:

I think Florida in man coverage means they'll get beat and big plays will be had, and Muschamp will have told them if they think they're beat -- hold. Better to take the 15 yard penalty than give up the 60 yard TD.

Let the big plays and the flags fly!

Go Vols!

Go get 'em Justin!

SummittsCourt writes:

CAN'T WAIT!

StoneJackBaller writes:

We should win by 10 at least.

SewaneeVolFan writes:

I wish we could have Justin Hunter for another year after this, but I'd say he's gone after this season. He's gone even if it would be better for his development to stay another year and even if he adores being at UT and loves the college experience. I wish it wasn't cynical to think this way, but I thought he was gone as soon as I heard he has a baby.

Nothing's wrong with having a child while you're an undergraduate, but even if he has a fabulous family support network, financially it must be a burden to be a father in college. Not to mention tough to juggle all the responsibilities of studying, practice, and so forth.

I can't hold it against him if he goes pro either to help his family or because he believes he's ready. I think he's good enough to play in the NFL right now.

So I'm resigned to losing him next year. I just hope he leaves a legacy of beating the Gators like a rented mule, and some other significant victories, too.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

We WILL win. 24-10
go big Orange Volunteers

givehim6 writes:

Another plus on Hunters side this year is he does not have as much pressue on him, last year UT was pretty much a 3 man show (Bray, Hunter, & Da'Rick) now UT is more balanced.

Tenn_Traveler writes:

Johnny Mills catching balls from the Swamp Rat (Dewey Warren), 2:00 PM kickoffs, Vols Winning - Priceless!

Go Vols beat those Gators!!! Sat is the day!!!

illinoisvolfan writes:

I've liked Hunter from the first time I saw him play for Tennessee. I like him even better now for the way he's handled his injury and the recovery involved. Some people react negatively when life hands them a bad break (giving up, getting into trouble, etc.), Hunter has shown the right way to react when adversity interferes with your dreams. GBO, show the Gators what they missed last year, Justin.

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