KNOXVILLE — There was Justin Hunter, back out there doing his thing.
Nearly seven months to the day since going down in a heap with a torn ACL in his left knee, the Tennessee receiver was making catches and scoring a touchdown on the Neyland Stadium turf during the Volunteers’ second spring scrimmage Saturday afternoon.
The junior caught two passes and took a 50-yard catch-and-run strike from quarterback Tyler Bray on the first drive of the closed scrimmage and finished with 70 yards on three receptions.
“I was actually nervous when we came out here to begin with, because I didn’t how my knee was going to take it,” he said. “But after that first catch and I was running and it felt good, I was happy after that.
“I think today I was just thinking about getting open instead of my knee. I think that helped me out a lot, too. I’ve got to keep thinking about this until the summertime when it’s 100 percent.”
UT coach Derek Dooley said after Friday’s practice he wanted Hunter to push himself more on the knee. Hunter has been in a red noncontact jersey all spring, but he’s admitted to thinking about the injured leg when he plants and cuts. The lanky 6-foot-4 Virginia native said he agreed with his coach’s desire for him to not hold anything back mentally.
“His knee’s fine,” Bray said. “It’s just all confidence and what the training staff will let him do. He can run and catch and do all that like he used to. It’s just his whole mental outlook.”
After not catching a pass in UT’s first scrimmage, Da’Rick Rogers had two receptions for 14 yards. Tight end Mychal Rivera was active once again, hauling in five balls for 43 yards. Hunter’s presence, though, quickly reminded the Vols of what they missed last season.
“It was good to see him,” Dooley said. “The first drive ... it just shows you the kind of impact the guy can have out there. He’s a good football player, and we need him to be healthy and need him to be healthy all 12 games.”
Added tailback Rajion Neal: “It’s very apparent and known when he’s out there. He’s a playmaker. Guys are real comfortable with him being out there, and we count on him.”
After completing 40 percent of his passes in the first scrimmage, Bray’s numbers were better Saturday. The junior finished 13-of-23 for 180 yards and the score to Hunter. Tempo was the part of the focus Saturday, and Bray said the offense executed better than it did the previous week.
“It’s the same offense,” he said. “We’re just trying to get the tempo to where it should have been last year.”
Dooley said Bray struggled toward the end of the scrimmage when the Vols went into more situational work. The key, the coach said, is keeping up that rhythm, starting with Bray.
“Here’s what happens: We set the tempo and we’re rolling,” Dooley said, “but then, when the defense settles in [they] make a couple plays. Now how do we get back going again? That’s where we’re not there yet.”
Lane rebounds well
After running for 8 yards on seven carries in the first scrimmage, Marlin Lane bounced back with a 12-carry, 71-yard performance Saturday that included a 3-yard touchdown.
“Marlin ran with a lot more toughness and aggressiveness, and it showed,” Dooley said. “I was disappointed in how he performed last week, and he was too. Like good players do, they respond. He responded well, had a good week, had a good couple of days toward the end of the week and I think he was ready to go out there and prove what he can do.”
Devrin Young ran for 35 yards on seven carries as the diminutive sophomore continued his strong spring. The 5-foot-8, 171-pound speedster, who doubles as the Vols’ kick and punt returner, totaled 119 yards on 11 touches in the first scrimmage.
Dooley said Young has been running between the tackles and joked that he even ran through 6-foot-6, 329-pound tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson’s legs.
“He’s a big-play back [who] still needs to develop in the discipline area,” Dooley said. “Our big challenge with Devrin is the durability. We want to use him, but a guy like that, you can try and use him too much and all of a sudden you lose him. That’s going to be a real good challenge for us.”
Rajion Neal followed up a 100-yard scrimmage last week by struggling a little bit Saturday. The junior ran 12 times for 39 yards and punched in a 2-yard touchdown, but he fumbled for the second time during the week. He said he was trying to switch the ball while in the backfield.
“It’s definitely something I’ll work on, but I’m a guy, when I get out there and play, I don’t think about nothing,” Neal said. “I just try to have fun, and sometimes it comes back to haunt me because I get out there and play and switch the ball when it’s not needed. It’s just something I’m going to have to work on.”
Dooley’s biggest gripe Saturday was the team’s “discipline on the simple things” and attitude when getting “affected” by negative plays. The coach continues to like the overall effort and toughness. ... Byron Moore, who has worked his way into a first-team spot at safety this spring, turned his ankle during the scrimmage, though Dooley didn’t believe it was serious.
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 ...