KNOXVILLE - Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter and North Carolina State cornerback David Amerson might not line up across from each other every play when the Volunteers and Wolfpack meet Friday night.
That's not stopping Hunter from relishing the opportunities he does get against the All-American.
"It's talent on talent," the Vols' junior said earlier this week.
The 6-foot-3, 194-pound Amerson is not alone in the Wolfpack secondary, and despite the exit of Da'Rick Rogers, Hunter isn't the only Tennessee player going out for passes. N.C. State's back four is the strength of its defense. Safeties Earl Wolff and Brandon Bishop are fourth-year starters, and first-time starter Dontae Johnson has had the cornerback spot opposite Amerson locked down since the spring.
Yet it's Amerson, a former four-star recruit who was rated as a top 250 overall player by Rivals, held scholarship offers from the likes of LSU, Clemson, Notre Dame, South Carolina and Virginia Tech and picked off 13 passes as a sophomore in 2011, who deserves the most attention from the Vols.
"I hope he's playing d-tackle," Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney joked. "If you could get that done, we'd appreciate it."
Amerson's size and length are apparent, but Vols coach Derek Dooley noted the junior's mentality.
"He's as good as there is at corner," he said. "It starts with height, weight, speed and position skills, which he obviously has, but there's also an intangible dynamic playmaking attitude that usually the great ones in the back end have. He's got it."
With Rogers, the team's leading receiver a season ago, now playing at Tennessee Tech, Hunter leads a group that's mostly unproven. Even the 6-foot-4, 200-pound junior himself admitted earlier this month that's he got his own point to prove. Hunter's talent is undoubted, but he's not played in 11 months after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last September.
Dooley's expectation is that Hunter will have some rust when he first takes the field Friday night.
"He looks fine to me," Chaney said. "I think he's ready to go play a football game. I'm excited about seeing him. He's thrilled to death.
"He's like a kid in a candy store out here. He's probably a little too juiced right now, but he'll be ready to go. He'll make a few mental mistakes because he hadn't played in a while, but he's also going to make a few plays for us."
The same goes for Cordarrelle Patterson, the physically impressive 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior-college transfer who will make his UT debut. He could see some of Amerson as well, as both Dooley and Chaney said N.C. State keeps their ball-hawking defender on one side of the field. Despite the recent indications, Tennessee is preparing for anything.
"Who knows," Chaney pondered. "First game, he could be anywhere."
Including exclusively on Hunter, which would force Patterson, senior Zach Rogers and a freshman wideout or two to make plays.
"I'm sure they'll adjust their game plan accordingly," Dooley said. "He's not the only guy back there. I'm sure they're not fearing any of our guys. Those two safeties they've got [have] a lot of experience and a lot of production.
"I don't expect them to change what they do because of us."
As Dooley said earlier in the week, Tennessee doesn't intend on changing much either despite the matchup and Rogers' absence. The Vols will throw the ball, but quarterback Tyler Bray must be patient. The junior said the Vols won't do anything special in regards to Amerson.
"We're going to treat him just like any other DB," Bray said. "We're not going to shy away from him. We're going to go at him."
Hunter appears motivated by that notion. The comparisons he had for Amerson were 6-foot, 219-pound former LSU corner Patrick Peterson and 6-foot-2, 186-pound former Alabama corner Dre Kirkpatrick, a pair of top-17 picks the past two NFL drafts. If he sees No. 1 in red in front of him Friday night at the Georgia Dome, the easy-going wideout plans to make the most of it.
"[He] plays the deep ball real well," Hunter said. "We've got to take advantage of that. For me, it's to beat him over the top."
• Tennessee freshman receiver Jason Croom (hamstring) was the most active he's been in two weeks during Wednesday morning's practice, but how much he'll play is unknown.
• The Vols have practiced on the indoor practice field inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex all week in preparation for playing in the Georgia Dome Friday night. "It's being inside, but it's also being on the surface that's similar to what you're going to get in the Dome," Dooley said during Wednesday's Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference. "We think it's going to at least help a little, but you never really get fully adjusted to a dome environment until you go in there."
• N.C. State receiver Bryan Underwood is a game-time decision for Friday night, Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien said Wednesday. The 5-foot-11, 174-pound speedster returned to practice after undergoing knee surgery earlier this month. He caught 16 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman last season and was an expected starter entering this year.