Vols' Hunter ready to re-emerge
WR back from injury to join All-SEC receiver Rogers, QB Bray
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter is 100 percent healthy after tearing his left ACL early in a loss at Florida last September.
That's welcome news to coach Derek Dooley and quarterback Tyler Bray.
Before his injury last season, Hunter was leading the Southeastern Conference in receptions and receiving yards per game. He finished the year with 17 catches for 314 yards and two touchdowns in a little more than two games.
Bray said Hunter is "looking better than ever" based on summer workouts and early camp practices.
"I've been out there running with the team and everything with no pain, no tweaks or anything like that," Hunter said. "I'm jumping the same, jumping actually, I think, I'm a little bit higher than I was. My speed hasn't decreased as I was running, so I think everything is good."
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound junior hauled in a Tennessee freshman-record seven touchdown passes in a reserve role in 2010 and believes he's a better player now than he was last year because of an offseason of watching film and training in the weight room.
"I did a lot of studying on myself, just basically on routes, what I could do or couldn't do," Hunter said. "I stayed in the weight room. I think I got a lot stronger since I got hurt."
Dooley wants to see production on the field before he's convinced.
"He's got to get the pads on and get hit and be able to go 12 games and produce," Dooley said. "This will be his first time where we depend on him every game. Can he do it?
"We're still in uncharted waters for him."
Fellow junior receiver Da'Rick Rogers is a proven commodity for the Volunteers. Despite facing constant double-teams last season after Hunter's injury, Rogers was a first-team All-SEC selection, grabbing a league-best 67 receptions for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns.
"Last year when Justin went down, I had to learn his position, learn to play a little more in the slot and learn to get open more," Rogers said.
The 6-foot-3 Rogers said he slimmed down from last season when he weighed 215 pounds. Now at 208 pounds, Rogers says he feels "a whole lot faster and quicker."
Cordarrelle Patterson, a hyped junior college receiver, arrived on campus in July and has already impressed teammates.
"He's real fast and he's real big, too. He's not like me or Da'Rick," Hunter said. "He can go out there and do things that we can't do, but at the same time, he's real good."
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Patterson was a high school teammate of Vols' backup quarterback Justin Worley before spending the last two years at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College.
Senior wideout Zach Rogers, who's played in 36 games, including 10 starts, during the last three years, and freshmen Alton Howard, Drae Bowles and Jason Croom provide depth at receiver for the Vols.
"Our receiving corps is one of the best in the country," Hunter said. "I can say that from personal experience."
Senior Mychal Rivera is also back after ranking third among SEC tight ends in receptions (29) and receiving yards (344) last year.
"From what I see, I don't think anybody can guard [our passing game]," Rogers said. "It's just when you have so many weapons you have to respect every weapon so it opens up more opportunities for our entire offense, even the running game."
While the Vols' air assault has proven weapons, Tennessee's ground attack ranked last in the SEC in each of the past two seasons, averaging just 90.1 yards per game last year. This year, the Vols replace two-year starter Tauren Poole. Dooley said the competition at tailback probably wouldn't be settled until a few games into the season.