KNOXVILLE — Bones is back.
Justin Hunter, a skinny but talented freshman wide receiver nicknamed “Bones” by his Tennessee teammates, was approved by the NCAA clearinghouse Tuesday morning and practiced with the Volunteers in the afternoon.
Hunter, a highly touted prospect from Virginia who committed to LSU before signing with the Vols, was pulled off the practice field last week while the NCAA examined his transcript.
Like all UT true freshmen, Hunter can’t speak with the media until he plays significant snaps in a game. Coaches and teammates have been happy to talk about him all month, though, and Tuesday was no exception.
“It was a huge relief,” first-year Vols coach Derek Dooley said. “There were a lot of nervous coaches, but fortunately [it worked out]. We were confident all along that he was going to get cleared. It was just a question of when.”
The 6-foot-4, 180-pound Hunter was arguably preseason camp’s most pleasant surprise. Coaches knew the multisport star was an athlete — he’s one of the world’s best long jumpers in his age group and was one of the top prep basketball players in Virginia — but they didn’t expect him to arrive in Knoxville ready to play. He quickly rose to No. 2 on the wide receiver depth chart after making several big plays in scrimmages, and he has worked in the return game.
“He’s tall. He’s rangy. He has huge hands,” Vols wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett said. “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’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.”
Senior wide receiver Gerald Jones said Tuesday’s news was “big time.”
“We know he can help us right away,” Jones said. “Coach has always emphasized on us that he needs players who can help us now, and definitely Justin Hunter is one of those guys that can help us right away.
“To have him out here and have everything taken care of, it’s a big relief.”
Sophomore safety Janzen Jackson joked that Hunter wears “a cape on his back, because he can fly.”
“He is incredible, and he is going to be an All-American,” junior tailback Tauren Poole said. “He is incredible. Some of the plays he makes, to be a freshman, are insane. He is really mature, and I cannot wait to see him play in the game.
“That is the one player I am excited to [watch] play in this league.”
Dooley said Hunter looked “good” Tuesday, but he expected that. The real test, he added, will come later in the week.
“I was most concerned about his being in shape,” the coach said. “But we’ve tightened down the game plan a little bit, and he’s been looking it over, I’m sure. ... Usually, your first day back, you’re a ball of energy, and you’re going [great]. Then all of a sudden you realize, ‘Am I still in good shape or not?’ I hope it won’t be too big a setback, but we’ll see.
“He’ll be ready for Saturday. I don’t know how much.”
Dooley said Hunter used the week off to help a sore foot that’s bothered him for a while.
“We had no control over the [NCAA] situation,” Dooley said. “It’s always a lesson that you can’t worry about things you can’t control, so make the best of it. He was a little bit hurting in the foot, so we took it as an opportunity to triple the treatment.
“You just find, ‘How can I turn this into a positive?’ And that’s what he did. He handled it great.”
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