By Matt Dixon
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said during preseason camp that freshman Justin Hunter was “just trying not to get yelled at.”
The 6-foot-4 wide receiver certainly didn’t get yelled at during the Volunteers’ 52-14 win over Mississippi on Saturday.
Hunter needed only one offensive play to show again his big-play ability, taking a tipped Tyler Bray pass 80 yards for a touchdown.
“It was lucky, but you create it,” Dooley said. “Justin ran fast and reacted to the ball. That was just one play. It was early, it is nice to get a little juice going early.
“Justin is a special player. He made some special plays.”
Hunter said he has been coached that “every ball is our ball so I had to make that one our ball.”
“Only thing I [saw] was the ball get tipped in the air and I had to go get it,” he said. “When I got it, I just had to go run as fast as I [could] to get away from everybody from avoiding the hit.”
Senior Gerald Jones was the intended receiver of that early Bray pass. The play called for Jones and Hunter to run double slants.
“You know, he was just at the right place at the right time. It’s called luck,” Jones said. “But thank God it happened. He turned something into nothing [for Ole Miss].”
Hunter nabbed his second touchdown catch of the day, this one intended for him, after UT’s lead was cut to 21-7 in the second quarter.
“I seen confusion in the defense with them getting aligned, so when I was on my route, I seen [the safety] trying to come over and I had to jump to it first before he got there.”
Hunter made the 22-yard touchdown catch with two defenders blanketing him.
“We were going to throw it up to the tall guy when they go challenge us, and it worked,” Dooley said of the strategy against the blitz.
Hunter’s size and his leaping ability have led to several highlight-reel catches this season.
“I’d say it helps me out a lot ’cause its just like running down the runway, just jumping as far as I can,” said Hunter, a world-class long jumper. “But this corresponds to me jumping up.”
Hunter finished with three receptions for 114 yards and two touchdowns, all in the first half.
The tall, lanky Hunter has five TD catches this season, the second on the team behind senior Denarius Moore’s seven, and averages a team-high 28 yards per catch.
Hunter believes one reason for the big plays has been defenses not respecting his speed, something he says is because most tall receivers don’t have great speed.
“If I get that first step on the defender, I don’t think he’s going to be able to catch me,” Hunter said.
Ten games into his college career, Hunter now feels much more comfortable with his role on the team.
“The first game I felt like a real newcomer into this organization,” he said. “Now I feel like I’m right at home, and so it’s a good experience for me to be here.”
Still, Hunter said winning makes the experience more enjoyable.
“Oh, I’m having a lot of fun,” Hunter said. “Can’t complain about nothing after this win.”
Contact Matt Dixon at email@example.com or 423-757-6273.