KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee got the news it had been dreading on Sunday evening.
A little more than 24 hours after Justin Hunter, the Volunteers' star receiver, landed awkwardly on his left leg while making a first-down catch in UT's loss at 15th-ranked Florida on Saturday, the Vols announced that the sophomore will miss the remainder of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Hunter, who entered the game with 302 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 16 catches, landed awkwardly in the first quarter and left the field on crutches. He will undergo surgery and is expected back for spring practice.
"First of all you hate it for the kid," UT coach Derek Dooley said after the game. "It just makes you sick when you see it, because you know probably what happened. Then you hate it for the team.
"It's an energy-zapper, but you've to turn around and say 'Hey, we've got four quarters of football to play, we don't have time to sulk.'"
The Vols (2-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) do have some time to adjust and figure out how to handle the potential long-term loss of their top playmaker. UT has a bye week before a game against a Buffalo team that should present little difficulty.
The immediate effect is more opportunities for Zach Rogers and freshmen DeAnthony Arnett and Vincent Dallas. Arnett, a four-star recruit, had eight catches for 59 yards against the Gators mostly on quick out patterns.
"It was good to get him out there," Dooley said. "He's going to have to play a lot now. He's going to have to grow up. Vincent Dallas is going to have to grow up."
Dallas, a three-star recruit who enrolled at UT in January and went through spring practice, caught a six-yard pass on the Vols' opening drive shortly after Hunter went down. The Vols feel both freshmen have bright futures, but the duo is still raw.
"[I told them] just the same thing I've told them all season," said sophomore Da'Rick Rogers. "You could easily be a starter. You've got to practice like you're a starter because you're one play away, the same way we were last year."
As much as the replacements might produce, they're different players than Hunter, who had the ability to stretch defenses vertically and make catches in traffic with his leaping skills. Dallas, Arnett and Zach Rogers are all smaller, quicker receivers better suited to the slot. Dooley said Hunter is a factor in how UT handles blitzes, and quarterback Tyler Bray had built a solid rapport with his fellow sophomore.
"It's tough at times," Bray said. "There's plays where you normally look to that side, and you have to say, 'Hey, he's not in there to make that.' Still, I've got to trust in the guys and let them make plays."
Without Hunter to draw defenses' attention, Da'Rick Rogers can also expect to see more coverage thrown in his direction similar to what Florida did Saturday.
"The safeties were playing over top of me, but as a playmaker it shouldn't matter," said Rogers, the Calhoun, Ga., native. "I should just make plays."
As important as Hunter was to UT's offense in the Vols' first two games of the season, it's going to take more than one player to make up for the loss.
"We're going to lose people," said tailback Tauren Poole. "Guys are going to go down. Who's the next man that's going to step up? Whoever steps into his position has big shoes to fill."
Where's the Help?
With the one dimension of UT's offense taking a hit, the other needs to step up as well.
Merely showing up, though, would be a start.
The Vols had minus-9 yards rushing against Florida after having to abandon any running plays due to the deficit and ineffectiveness.
"It's hard to justify running the ball," Dooley said, "when you're down three scores and every run you've had is getting buried at the line of scrimmage."
Added Poole, "We didn't establish a run game, and you won't win a game if you don't establish a run game, although our pass game is great. The run game has to be there for us to be successful."
Dooley noted how the Vols never stopped playing on Saturday after UT cut a 30-7 deficit to the final 33-23 margin and had possession down 10 in the waning minutes.
"I was proud of them for that," he said. "I told them there's no moral victories but there's something to how we kept playing, keeping fighting. There were a lot of reasons to stick your head down out there and just say 'this isn't our day.'"
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 ...