KNOXVILLE — Justin Hunter is every bit of 6-foot-4 and probably nowhere near 184 pounds.
He’s so skinny that teammates call him “Bones.”
“You can just look at him and say his name is ‘Bones,’” senior wide receiver Denarius Moore said of his Tennessee freshman teammate. “Seriously ... look at him. What else would you call him?”
If Hunter keeps performing the way he has the past two weeks, though, a new nickname might be in order.
“I think he’s got a cape on his back, because he can fly,” sophomore safety Janzen Jackson said. “Man, he’s just incredible.”
Hunter, a multi-sport star from Virginia with Olympic aspirations in the long jump, missed nearly all of offseason football workouts while working with the USA Track and Field team. He won the USATF title this summer and placed sixth at the IAAF world championships before enrolling at UT just before the start of preseason camp. And he did all that despite being “not track sharp” after working on football-specific workouts.
UT freshman aren’t allowed to speak with the media until they play a significant role in a game, but it’s clear that Hunter has stunned coaches and teammates early in camp. And it started well before Saturday night’s scrimmage, when he caught five passes for 128 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s surprised everybody,” Moore said. “Just by looking at him, you’d think he’d have a long way to come. But he’s actually coming on now. He’s real talented to be his size, to be so skinny. But he has good body control. That’s what surprised everybody else, along with his speed.”
Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press Wide receiver Justin Hunter, No. 87, poses for photographers during the University of Tennessee Vols Media Day at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.
Added sophomore cornerback Marsalis Teague: “He’s smart, and he’s an Olympic kind of athlete. That kind of helps.”
Vols wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett, who has coached NFL stars Cris Carter, Randy Moss, Plaxico Burress, Derrick Mason, Andre Rison, Muhsin Muhammad, Chris Chambers and Antonio Freeman, beams when asked about Hunter.
“He’s tall,” Baggett said. “He’s rangy. He has huge hands. He plucks the ball out of the air. He has very good ball skills. He can cut on a dime. He can accelerate. All the things you look for in a great receiver, this kid has. I’m just looking forward to coaching him and seeing how much better he can get.
“I hate to compare, because it’s not fair to do that. He has to prove in the SEC that he can do this. That’s what I’m looking forward to. I’ll hold reservation until he does that.”
Hunter has also pleasantly surprised coaches with his attitude, work ethic and quick football wit. He’s made more plays than several kids who enrolled well before him.
“Some kids pick things up better than others,” Baggett said. “Justin just happens to be one of those kids that’s kind of football smart. He’s very athletically gifted. I’ve been around for a long time, 34 years in coaching, and he’s one of the best I’ve seen at picking things up. It’s exciting to see the prospects of where he can go from here. It really is.
“He’s unbelievable. He’s one of the nicest personality kids I’ve ever been around. He wants to learn and is very willing to learn. He does it on the field. He pays attention in the classroom. If there’s such a thing as a whole package, he’s as close as I’ve ever seen.”
Added offensive coordinator Jim Chaney: “Justin’s had a wonderful camp. He’s done a wonderful job. He catches the ball. He’s a phenomenal athlete, and I look forward to watching him play for a lot of years.”
Derek Dooley, whose first commitment as UT’s head coach was Hunter — previously an LSU pledge — said he knew he liked Hunter after a brief exchange on the practice field early in camp.
“I was talking to (former Calhoun standout) Da’Rick (Rogers) a little bit, and I looked at Justin, and Justin says, ‘Coach, all I’m trying to do is not get yelled at,’” Dooley said. “I said, ‘He’s figured it out,’” because before you worry about making plays, you’ve got to worry about not screwing the thing up. Everybody wants to come in and be the star and make a play, and they don’t line up right. You’ve got to first get yelled at and get not noticed. We didn’t notice Justin for several practices, and that’s a good thing, because he wasn’t screwing up. Then, you don’t get yelled at, you get in a little comfort zone, and you make some plays because you’re where you’re supposed to be.
“He really approached camp the right way for a true freshman. He was very mature, and I think that’s what’s allowed him to go.”
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