published Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Coaches look to get Vols star wideout more involved in the offensive gameplan

Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter looks for running room during practice.
Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter looks for running room during practice.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — The offense's other dimension is finding more success, and the opposite side's receiver is garnering more attention with his dazzling talents.

The opposing defensive coordinators have his name near the top of their game plans, too.

That combination of factors have quieted Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter's chances and production the past two games, and the Volunteers are looking to make more noise with their talented wideout.

"Sometimes those things happen," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said Wednesday morning after Tennessee finished practice. "We don't want them to happen because he's such a talented good football player. We're going to try to keep that from happening again and be conscious of it.

"We're running the ball a little bit better [so] we're not having to throw every ball at him. That's a little bit different, too, but we've got to try to find ways to get him the ball. I don't know if it's much what the defense is doing."

The 6-foot-4, 200-pound junior is a first-round draft pick in April's NFL draft according to numerous projections, but he's caught just five passes in Tennessee's last two losses heading into Saturday night's matchup with top-ranked Alabama's talented secondary. His five receptions against Florida in September were his lowest this season before this two-game skid. Hunter's 30 catches in the Vols' first four games were the second-most in a four-game season-opening stretch in the history of a program that's known for producing talented receivers.

The Vols have targeted Hunter just 11 times the past two games, a span that includes 197- and 213-yard rushing performances and 323 total all-purpose yards and a touchdown of three varieties (rushing, receiving and kickoff return) from junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson.

"You can't get frustrated," receivers coach Darin Hinshaw said. "You can only control what you can control. There are times where the ball did hit Justin's hands, and he's got to catch it. We've got to make those plays and catch those opportunities.

"But be patient, don't press, don't stress about it, go play, have fun, go play as hard as you possibly can and the ball will come to you. That's what I tell him every single time: if you're going to play every snap like it's you're last, it will happen for you. We're going to work some different things to get him the ball."

Though Hunter's chances have been limited, there have been some misses. Quarterback Tyler Bray simply misfired on throws down the middle of the field to an open Hunter twice against Georgia on plays that would have gained significant yardage. Bray put one on the money to Hunter against Mississippi State, but he short-armed the catch with a safety nearby ready hit him and added another drop to his surprising list headlined by two costly ones against Florida.

Though he caught just two passes in Starkville, coach Derek Dooley said earlier this week he thought Hunter had a good game.

"He didn't get a lot of opportunity balls," Dooley said, "and we've got to do a better job of that. I talked to him about it, but you know, Justin, he's got a different way of making plays than C.P., so we can't compare the two.

"They're totally different. Justin is a down-the-field playmaker. C.P. is let's get it in his hands and let him fake out 25 guys."

Hunter's yards per reception average has decreased each season from 25.9 yards as a freshman in 2010 to 18.5 in just over two games before injury last season and 14.2 so far this year. His longest reception this year was a 42-yarder against Florida. While the Gators pressed him at the line, Georgia played their safeties deep to keep the lid on Hunter's big-play abilities.

"You've got to combat them by hurting them in other ways, but we've still got to give Justin some opportunity balls," Dooley said.

After 146- and 156-yard games to open his sophomore season, Hunter tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last September. His recovery moved quickly, and after clearing a mental hurdle during practice, he scoffed at any notion of his knee slowing him down. Dooley warned Hunter could be rusty, but the hot start to the season dispelled those concerns.

Hunter didn't speak with reporters this week, but coaches and teammates say they sense some frustration in him. Bray took the playful approach, saying it stemmed from "all the praise and love" recently heaped on the newcomer Patterson. Hunter may remain Bray's preferred target, but the quarterback is taking advantages of other options when they're there.

"He's continuing to work," receiver Zach Rogers said. "Obviously he wants more balls, but the offense is going to come to him and Tyler's going to find him within the coming weeks. He's just got to stay focused on what he's got.

"He's a great player and he deserves all the double teams that he's getting because he's got tremendous talent, but he's going to come around and he's going to get the balls that he needs."

The basic desire of wanting the ball and the general frustration when it doesn't happen is typical of most receivers.

"He wants to catch 10 balls a game," Chaney said. "He's everything every good receiver is. They get frustrated when they don't catch 10 balls a game.

"I want him to be that way. He just has to go out and perform every time on every play, and he's understanding that. He's getting better and better as the games go by."

about Patrick Brown...

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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