KNOXVILLE — The stat sheet may say one thing, but Justin Hunter had another quiet game Saturday night.
Tennessee's star receiver finished with 70 yards on four catches, but his drop seconds before halftime of the Volunteers' 44-13 blowout loss to top-ranked Alabama at Neyland Stadium will garner more attention.
"I basically just took my eyes off the ball, because I had seen so much field," Hunter said. "I was just thinking about running instead of catching the ball first."
The junior had just five catches in the Vols' previous two games and didn't catch his first pass against the Crimson Tide until the third quarter.
"They're just double-teaming me a lot," said Hunter, who did not meet with reporters this past week. "I think they're throwing a safety over the top most of the time, like they did today. They spy me a lot for the deep ball, so [quarterback Tyler Bray's] not going to force anything like that and jeopardize the offense."
After Georgia geared its game plan to limit Hunter, he's faced very good cornerbacks the past two games. Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay held him to two catches in Starkville last week, and Alabama's Dee Milliner and Deion Belue held him in check Saturday. Hunter's first reception was a 44-yard catch-and-run when Tennessee trailed 30-10, and he added more catches on the series following another Alabama score.
Hunter has had key drops against Florida, Mississippi State and Alabama.
"He's had more drops than he should on Saturdays," Vols coach Derek Dooley said. "He hasn't had a lot in practice."
Back to sideline
Dooley said as late as Wednesday that his return to the the coaches' booth for the Alabama game was "probable." Turns out the coach was playing coy on his own injury.
Less than two weeks after surgery to repair a fracture in his right hip, Dooley returned to the sideline Saturday after coaching the previous game at Mississippi State from the press-box level.
The coach said it was difficult on him not to be in his usual spot roaming the sideline last week, and he put himself at some risk Saturday. Dooley coached on crutches, though he was able to put more weight on his right leg than he has since the surgery. Dooley has been using a golf cart to move around practice.
Two players the Vols plucked out of the Florida Gators' back yard in their 2011 signing class got their first significant playing time for Tennessee's defense Saturday night.
Jordan Williams was the announced starter at Jack linebacker ahead of regular starter Jacques Smith, and his former Gainesville (Fla.) High School teammate Trevarris Saulsberry joined the defensive-line rotation.
Dooley said earlier in the week the Vols needed to get the 6-foot-5, 256-pound Williams more playing time, but Saulsberry's chance was more of a surprise. Williams played in nine games with four tackles and a sack last year as a freshman and got in four games this season before Saturday. After redshirting last season, the only playing time the 6-foot-4, 285-pound Saulsberry had before Saturday was mop-up duty against Georgia State in September.
Saulsberry made five tackles against the Crimson Tide, including one for loss that forced Alabama to kick a field goal.
Tennessee hosted two official visitors and a slew of unofficial ones for Saturday night's game.
After making an unofficial trip to Knoxville for the Vols' loss to Florida in September, Charlotte receiver Marquez North returned for an official visit. The 6-foot-4, 212-pound four-star prospect took an official visit to Florida for the Gators' win against LSU. The Mallard Creek High School standout holds scholarship offers from Georgia, Florida, Auburn, Ohio State, LSU, Clemson, Miami, Michigan and a host of others and announced the Vols as his leader three weeks ago.
Defensive end Naim Mustafaa, who committed to Georgia in June, also made an official visit. The 6-4, 235-pounder from Alpharetta (Ga.) High pledged to the home-state Bulldogs after a visit during the summer. His other offers include Georgia Tech, Florida and Florida State.
A trio of Chattanooga-area prospects made unofficial trips to Knoxville. Ridgeland safety Vonn Bell made his rescheduled trip after not coming for Tennessee's game against Florida, and Tennessee commitment and Bradley Central offensive tackle Austin Sanders has been to every home game this season. Howard's Brandon Walters, a 6-foot-8, 260-pound defensive lineman who leads the area in sacks and tackles for loss and was an all-state basketball player, also was in attendance.
Joining Sanders as Vols commitments were athlete Jalen Reeves-Maybin (Clarksville, Tenn.), athlete Cameron Sutton (Jonesboro, Ga.), receiver Camion Patrick (Knoxville) and offensive lineman Brett Kendrick (Knoxville). A group of juniors included touted in-state prospects Knoxville Webb safety Todd Kelly, Jr., the son of former Tennessee linebacker Todd Kelly, and Station Camp receiver Josh Malone.
Big hoops visitor
Cuonzo Martin's basketball program had just one visitor on campus this weekend, but he was a big one. The Vols' second-year basketball coach hosted Memphis Briarcrest Christian's Austin Nichols, a five-star prospect who's being chased by the likes of Duke.
The 6-8, 193-pound five-star recruit is the AAU teammate of five-star wing Robert Hubbs, who committed to Tennessee after his official visit for the Florida game in September.
Tennessee's captains Saturday night were center James Stone, linebacker A.J. Johnson, cornerback Justin Coleman and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. ... Michael Palardy's 32-yard field goal was the first points Alabama has allowed since the Tennessee game last season. ... Longtime Tennessee booster and new Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam was in attendance Saturday night. ... Starting right guard Zach Fulton left the game in the second quarter with an apparent leg injury, but he returned on the opening possession of the second half. ... Palardy handled kickoff, place-kicking and punting duties and averaged 48.2 yards on five punts (including a 56-yarder in the third quarter), though Alabama returner Cyrus Jones had nice returns on two of them. ... After saying Tuesday that he really wanted to beat Nick Saban because he didn't like the Alabama coach, former Tide defensive lineman Darrington Sentimore made his fourth sack as a Vol in the third quarter. ... Backup quarterback Justin Worley, who made his debut late in Tennessee's loss to Alabama in Tuscaloosa last season, replaced Bray with nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter with Alabama up 44-10.
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 ...