KNOXVILLE — Justin Hunter has plenty of other things on his mind.
The obvious question everybody else is asking is now an old one for Tennessee's star receiver.
"For real, I don't even think about my knee no more," Hunter said. "There's other things on my mind [like] just worrying about getting better at running my routes. The conditioning is really hard. We go out there every day, and the wear and tear on our bodies is more than just thinking about your legs and stuff."
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound junior tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee more than 11 months ago, and Hunter said earlier this month he felt he's returned as an even better receiver than the one who had 17 catches for 314 yards in two games and four plays last season. That sentiment's not changed after Tennessee's grueling training camp.
The Vols, who play North Carolina State in Atlanta to open the season in nine days, have made efforts to manage Hunter, even giving him a "maintenance day" off from practice at Milligan College early last week.
Hunter's message has been the same since he caught a touchdown pass in the first spring-practice scrimmage: My knee is fine.
"I always worry about Justin. He's so skinny," quipped fellow wideout Da'Rick Rogers. "I feel like everything's going to break every time you hit him, but he's an elusive guy and he's come back strong from his injury. He's not shown much fear on it.
"He's been running well, jumping well, trying to break tackles and do his thing, so I haven't been worried about it."
Though there are more options around him, losing Hunter would be a big blow for the Vols, but that's hardly a concern for the personable and talented receiver.
"I'm real excited and anxious because I see how we do our defense, and I want to see how we're going to do against other defenses," Hunter said. "Our defense knows all of our plays, but we still find a way to get open. To see what other people are going to do when they don't know our plays is going to be real exciting."
Time to prove it
Tennessee is expected to release its first depth chart of the season Thursday when the Vols return to practice after two days off the field. Aside from the starting tailback, most of the attention will be on who's starting in the defensive line and secondaries. Yet that chart will be far from complete since the Vols' defense features a number of different personnel groupings for various situations and offensive packages.
"I think we have a lot of players who are going to get a lot of snaps, especially early on, because really we don't have many who have proven they can be productive players in this league," coach Derek Dooley said. "We think we have a lot who could do that. We're probably going to play a lot of guys early and see what they can do and see what role they can have.
"We have an idea of what some of their strengths are, and [we] try to create some roles for them to help us win. We like who we have. The next phase is going to be let's get out there and see who can perform."
Watch running backs coach Jay Graham during a practice drill, and you'll see a coach who demands perfection to the finest detail. Show poor technique in a pass-protection drill? Start it over again. Run through the blaster too high? Go through the flexible plastic arms again.
It's the biggest detail, though, that gets the worst punishment. A fumble at any time in practice carries a crime of 10 up-downs. It happened twice in three reps during a drill last week.
"Every day I'm always preaching ball security and how to hold it, because after a fumble is the wrong time to say anything," said the former Tennessee tailback. "We try to be proactive. We try to work really hard on, 'Hey, that football is the most important thing.' It punishes everybody when you fumble the ball.
"I try to make sure they understand, and they even say in scrimmages on the sideline, 'Make sure you hold that ball,' because they know how important it is. I just try to put an emphasis on it, and I think they've done a good job so far with that. We've got to continue that every day."
Changes for fans
Tennessee announced Tuesday a handful of changes to its game-day atmosphere. Among the additions to Neyland Stadium are new flat-screen televisions underneath the upper deck, increased cellphone capacity for a stronger wireless signal, better lighting in the south and east end-zone concourses and a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee on concession items. The improvements were developed with the help of fan surveys from last season's Cincinnati game.
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 ...