Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter (11) catches a pass as he's defended by Oregon cornerback Talmadge Jackson III (37) during an NCAA football game at Neyland Stadium Saturday, Sept. 11, 2010 in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
KNOXVILLE — Justin Hunter didn’t hesitate for even a half-second Wednesday afternoon when asked about the best part of his game right now.
“The deep balls,” he said, “because that’s all I’ve been getting so far.”
And why not? There’s been nothing low-percentage about lobbing the ball down the sideline in his general direction.
Hunter, a 6-foot-4 true freshman wide receiver on the University of Tennessee football team, has averaged an eye-popping 21 yards per catch this season.
The Virginia Slim has just six catches in five games. But he’s picked his spots quite nicely.
Hunter didn’t catch a pass in UT’s season-opening, 50-0 win over Tennessee-Martin, but his spectacular, 31-yard catch at the 1-yard line set up the touchdown that gave the Volunteers a 13-3 lead over Oregon in game 2. He caught three passes for 60 yards the following week against Florida, including a 35-yard touchdown on fourth-and-6 that pulled UT within 24-17 early in the fourth quarter. His other two catches against the Gators went for first downs, too.
The following week against UAB was a downer, with only one catch for minus-2 yards. He only had one catch last Saturday at LSU, but it was another highlight-reel effort in another big spot. He hauled in a 37-yarder on third-and-3 that gave the Vols a first down at the Tigers 27. UT scored five plays later to take a 14-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Matt Simms has been a big believer in Hunter since the freshman showed in preseason camp and stunned everyone with his ability to make big plays.
Asked what impressed him the most about Hunter, Simms said, “His pure athleticism and his ability to adjust to the football no matter where its thrown.”
“He’s one of those guys that the throwing chart kind of changes when you throw it to him,” Simms added. “You don’t really have to be that accurate when you throw it to him for him to be able to catch it.”
Athleticism was never a question with Hunter. That’s why the Vols doggedly pursued him even after he committed to LSU out of Virginia Beach (Va.) Ocean Lakes High School. That’s why they’ll allow him to also compete on UT’s track and field team — he’s one of the world’s best long jumpers in his age group and has participated in several international competitions, including those that prevented him from enrolling in school this summer with his classmates.
Head coach Derek Dooley and his staff knew Hunter could run faster than most wide receivers his age, and they knew he could jump higher than any of them. Those are tangible, measurable skills.
But they had no idea that Hunter would show up with football savvy and tremendous toughness at just 178 pounds. Athletes who run track and play football tend to arrive without either of those traits.
“I’ve heard that a lot, but people are starting to change their minds now,” Hunter said. “They see that I can take a hit and I’m not just a track guy, but I’m also a football player, too.”
And a “natural” player at that, according to Baggett.
“You can’t coach some of the things he does,” said UT receivers coach Charlie Baggett, who has coached nine 1,000-yard receivers in the NFL. “You either have it or you don’t, and he has just about everything you could possibly want.”
He doesn’t have size. But he’s working on it.
Senior wide receivers Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore nicknamed the skinny Hunter “Bones” after just a few days in the locker room.
“When we came in, everybody [said] I’m the skinniest guy on the team — which I am now, still — but I’ve taken to it,” Hunter said. “I’ll keep it. It’s fine with me. They’ll have to call me ‘Muscles’ after a while, though.
“I’ve gained eight pounds since I’ve gotten here, but I’m looking forward to being 200 pounds by next season. I’m like 186 right now.”
Despite Hunter’s tremendous athleticism and matching attitude — “he’s the kind of kid that you dream coaching,” Baggett said — there are noticeable limitations in his game at the moment. He mostly run routes down the field, with an occasional slant thrown in the mix.
“I think everybody would like to see him play more — even him,” said Baggett, who frequently compares Hunter to one of his prized pupils, NFL star Randy Moss.
“But, you know, he’s made as many mistakes as he has made plays since he’s been playing,” Baggett added. “Some of it’s not visual to the spectator. He’s still got a long ways to go, and we’re going to get him in there and feed him as much as we can and see where we go from there.”
Hunter, provided he stays healthy, should get many more chances in the near future — starting with Saturday’s game at Georgia. He’s been put in UT’s three-receiver package alongside Jones and Moore this week.
“There’s no question it’s been good to see [the big plays], but he has the talent to do so,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “And we trust him enough to do it, so we’re going to ask him to a lot more and more and more.
“As he continues to grow, we’re going to continue to try to get him the football.”
And why not? If he can do it against teams like Oregon, Florida and LSU, who can stop the wiry wunderkind?
“The more that he learns about the nuances of college football and receiving, I think he’s even going to be better — which is a little bit scary to me,” Baggett said. “I really am excited about where he can be and where he can go.”
If nothing else, though, it’s safe to assume Hunter will at least keep getting chances to make big plays in the vertical game.
When he runs down the field and sees Simms release the ball, he immediately considers it his property.
“It’s mine,” he said. “It’s nobody else’s but mine. I’ve got to go get it. It’s my job to. ... I think it’s just the gift that God has given me right now. I’ve been working on a few more things, but this is what I do.”