GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Justin Hunter went down in a heap, and he wasn’t even hit.
The injury to Tennessee’s star sophomore receiver, though, was a gut-punch to the Volunteers early in a 33-23 loss to 16th-ranked Florida on Saturday afternoon at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Hunter landed awkwardly on a catch for a first down on UT’s fourth offensive play of the game, and he left the stadium on crutches.
“It’s tough losing one of your go-to guys,” UT quarterback Tyler Bray said, “but we still had a whole three quarters to come back and make plays, which we failed to do.”
Vols coach Derek Dooley said Hunter’s injury forced UT to play the rest of the game “left-handed.”
“[Bray] didn’t have his guy out there, No. 11,” Dooley said. “We weren’t prepared for it. It’s not like we had time to get ready. Everybody had to change a little bit, and all the plays you had for him, now someone else is running them.
“We’ll find out [the severity] when he gets his MRI, but there’s no indication that it’s OK.”
The Vols had to rely on even more freshmen, as DeAnthony Arnett became UT’s third receiver behind Da’Rick Rogers and Zach Rogers. Arnett finished with eight catches for 59 yards, mostly on out routes as UT played catch-up after falling behind 16-0 and 30-7.
Reserve receivers Vincent Dallas and Matt Milton made catches as well, the first of each’s career.
“Justin’s a big playmaker,” said Da’Rick Rogers, who finished with 62 yards on five catches. “You take him out of the game and you can easily just take over 100 yards, over eight catches and a few touchdowns off the board.”
UT missed a field goal on the drive when Hunter was hurt, but the Vols had just 4 yards and three punts on their next three drives.
“I feel like our offense may have missed him, having that playmaker on the field, [but] I feel like it wasn’t related to that,” center James Stone said. “It was related to us stepping on our own feet as an offense. We were struggling to get going.”
Stone struggled with low snaps throughout the game, and Bray was forced to grab a number of them at his feet. One even squirted by the 6-foot-6 quarterback for a 13-yard loss.
“I was becoming aware of it when I hear about it or I see a coach telling me to get it up or Tyler signaling to me to get it up,” said Stone, a sophomore.
Stone is naturally left-handed, but he’s become a right-handed snapper since the end of last season. Florida’s talented front seven did plenty to confuse the Vols.
“He just needed to relax,” Bray said. “He had so many things going through his head. He was thinking too much.”
Dooley decided to go for a two-point conversion after the Vols’ second score instead of kicking the extra point, which would have brought them within two scores. They had a fourth-and-goal situation on their ensuing possession and kicked a short field goal to make it 30-16.
“Probably shouldn’t have done it, looking back,” Dooley said. “That was one of those gray areas where you’re guaranteed 16, you’re cutting it to 15. You’ve got to get two two-point conversions anyway. I didn’t know how many possessions we were going to get. That’s why I did it, but it kind of went against what I believe in.”
Odds and ends
Marlon Walls started at defensive end instead of Ben Martin, who missed practice all week with a sprained ankle. ... Senior Art Evans started at cornerback in place of freshman Justin Coleman, who had struggled getting beat deep in UT’s first two games. ... Freshman linebacker A.J. Johnson led UT with seven tackles, ripped the ball from Florida’s Jeff Demps and set up a third-quarter touchdown. ... Dooley said the Vols “lost their composure” when Florida blocked a punt in the second quarter.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...