KNOXVILLE -- There have been other wakeup calls for Da'Rick Rogers, but this was more like a punch in the gut.
"It probably hit me right when I saw it happen," the Tennessee sophomore receiver recalled this past week.
There, across the field at Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, lay Justin Hunter, one of Rogers' best friends and his partner in pass-catching crime. Hunter writhed in pain after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Rogers has had moments during his short UT career that were doses of reality, such as last October after the Vols lost to South Carolina, during 2011 spring practice and late in preseason camp in August. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder from Calhoun, Ga., realized in those instances that his future, with veteran receivers Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones gone, was staring him in the face.
Though Hunter's season-ending injury certainly carried more emotions than those earlier moments, it means Rogers must react similarly and elevate his play, his leadership and his consistency.
"It's the same thing," he said. "I've been through it once, and we've got to go through it again. This year I've got to help the younger guys go through it."
When Rogers was forced to step into the shoes of Moore and Jones, UT's most productive receivers in 2010, he had Hunter alongside him to help. Now that luxury and Hunter's unique talents are gone, and the repercussions extend to UT's entire offense, which has a tuneup opportunity against Buffalo this coming Saturday before Georgia's visit on Oct. 8.
"Everybody picks up the load," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "This injury thing happens every year everywhere in football, and we're an offense, we're not an individual. We're going to lose good football players, but we've got good football players here, so hopefully we'll continue on that path of being successful."
That path is much more treacherous without Hunter. It puts more pressure on the Vols to fix their ailing running game, which ranks last in the Southeastern Conference and 105th in the country. It forces junior Zach Rogers to slide to an outside receiver spot, provide leadership and stay healthy. It means freshmen DeAnthony Arnett and Vincent Dallas must grow up quickly.
"We are going to have to step up as a whole offensive unit," said quarterback Tyler Bray. "Everywhere from my decisions to the line to the running backs and receivers. We didn't play well at all [against Florida]. If we don't step it up, there's going to be more games like that."
Hunter's biggest impact was his ability to stretch defenses downfield. The Vols used Bray's big arm to hit explosive plays to Moore and Hunter last season and built this year's offense around Bray's ability to get the ball to Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers down the field.
"We'll continue to push the ball down the field," Chaney said, "because that's who we are."
How the Vols do that, though, is the challenge. Instead of a 6-4, 200-pound athlete with a long frame and elite jumping skills, the Vols must do it with receivers better suited for the slot.
Zach Rogers has speed, but he's 6-foot and 180 pounds. Dallas and Arnett, who caught eight passes against Florida, are similar heights, though both have shiftiness better suited for the slot. Sophomore Matt Milton is 6-foot-5, but he's still learning to play full speed and working on his hands.
"You can't replace Justin Hunter," Zach Rogers said. "He's a deep-ball guy, and if you throw it in his general direction, he's going to jump over just about anybody. We can't replace that. We can just try to work some intermediate routes and throw the home run when we can.
"I've got be able to move outside and play on press [coverage]. I'm going to help these young guys out because we've all got to be interchangeable -- move inside, outside, wherever they need us at any time."
Replacing Hunter's production is likely going to be by committee and dependent on the opponent and the game plan. Bray said he must continue to spread the ball around, much like he did against the Gators when nine players caught balls. Da'Rick Rogers, who figures to see plenty of safeties shading to his side of the field, and tight end Mychal Rivera likely become Bray's top two targets.
That's just the change the passing game must make.
"The biggest change that we've got to do is we've got to be able run the football better with or without Justin Hunter," Chaney said. "That wouldn't matter one bit. Now he's a heck of a good football and don't misunderstand that he's going to be sorely missed, but at the end of the day, until we run the football better and be able to attack the line of scrimmage better, we're going to struggle. That's ultimately the point of emphasis for us."
The point of emphasis for Da'Rick Rogers is consistency. The former five-star recruit elevated his game over the course of the offseason with greater responsibility heaped across his broad shoulders. Now, as the primary target in UT's passing game and the primary focus of opposing secondaries, he'll have to elevate it again.
"I can't have an off game or an off play," he said. "Everything has to be good or better. I've got to work a lot harder and make sure the guys younger than me notice that I'm working hard, and they have to work hard with me."
Rogers admitted he wasn't consistent against Florida. He had two crucial drops, one with UT in hurry-up mode down 16-7 just before halftime and another that would have converted a third down with the Vols trailing 23-7 in the third quarter.
Hunter's injury ended the friendly competition he had with Rogers -- the two kept up with dropped passes in practice and would try to outdo each other in catches, yards and touchdowns in games. But it's by no means the end of the world for the Vols or their offense.
"I have a lot of faith in our coaches, Coach Chaney and Coach [Derek] Dooley," Rogers said. "I think they'll scheme it up well to where we can work around it and still be able to stretch the field and run the ball."
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 ...
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