Hunter Kicks off Vols’ NFL Parade
By Matt Smith
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin. Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page
Justin Hunter leaves Knoxville 14 yards shy of the school’s top 10 receiving yardage list.
After a disappointing season and a coaching change, Tennessee is expected to lose multiple juniors to the NFL over the coming weeks. On Monday, wide receiver Justin Hunter became the first Volunteer to put a cap on his college career, tweeting“*declared*”, an informal but perhaps trend-setting way to declare for the NFL draft.
Hunter, a Virginia Beach, Va. native, was one of two prized wide receiver recruits in Derek Dooley’s first signing class in 2010 along with Da’Rick Rogers. Rated the No. 75 player in the nation by Rivals, Hunter was expected to make an instant impact on a Vols offense hampered by uncertainty at quarterback.
He did just that, catching a 35-yard touchdown in just his third game, Tennessee’s annual September showdown with SEC East rival Florida. He added 100-yard games later in the season against Georgia and Ole Miss and finished with seven touchdown receptions, second most on the team.
Expectations were high heading into 2011 with Rogers and Hunter set to explode with strong-armed sophomore Tyler Bray firmly established under center in offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s pass-happy system. After 302 yards in two games, Hunter looked like a Biletnikoff Award candidate. However, early in the Vols’ Week 3 game at Florida, Hunter’s season came to an end when he tore his ACL making a cut. Without Hunter, the Tennessee offense struggled, and the Vols plummeted to 5-7.
2012 was supposed to bring a return to the Hunter of old, but something wasn’t quite right. While he averaged over 90 yards per game, he failed to top 100 yards against any of the seven teams Tennessee faced that finished with a winning record.
With his career ending with just 1,812 yards in only 28 games, it’s hard to say Hunter lived up to the hype that was bestowed on him three years ago. However, it was little fault of his own. Like the entire Tennessee program over the past three years, he simply couldn’t catch a break.
The reasons for Hunter’s disappointing production are numerous. Rogers was dismissed just prior to the season, making Hunter the obvious target for opposing defenses. Tennessee’s porous defense also forced the team to have to pass early and often in many games, often leaving Hunter double-teamed.
The injury of course is also to blame, as most players in their first year back from an ACL injury not named Adrian Peterson are still working to get back to full speed. It’s unfair to say Hunter may have had one foot out the door and was already thinking about the NFL, but if it were the case, he wouldn’t be the first player to do so.
Hunter leaves Knoxville 14 yards shy of the school’s top 10 receiving yardage list, despite being far more talented than many of the names above him, including the top two – Joey Kent and Marcus Nash. The difference? Some guy named Manning, whose name now adorns a street outside of Neyland Stadium, was throwing to Kent and Nash during their careers, while Hunter’s time on Rocky Top was marred by inconsistent quarterback play. Tyler Bray Way and Matt Simms Street aren’t exactly part of the university’s campus development plans.
Bray and fellow receiver Cordarrelle Patterson are expected to join Hunter in declaring for the NFL Draft prior to the Jan. 15 deadline, leaving new head coach Butch Jones with a dearth of skill position talent. Offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James announced Monday he will return for his senior season.
Hunter will now get a second chance, and has both the athleticism and football IQ to make an impact on Sundays. He showed flashes of brilliance over the past three seasons, but Tennessee fans never got to see the real Justin Hunter. If he lands in a less combustible place than he was in over the past three years, some NFL fanbase will experience what Vol Nation rarely did.