KNOXVILLE - Tennessee receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson are waiting until the Volunteers' season ends before thinking about their NFL futures.
Should the junior duo decide to skip their senior seasons and enter April's NFL draft, they probably won't be waiting long to hear their names called.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said on a conference call Wednesday that both Hunter and Patterson could end up first-round picks. He suggested that Patterson could move ahead of Hunter in his ranking of draft-eligible players.
"The only reason I'm not moving Patterson ahead is I want to see him down the stretch here," Kiper said. "Hunter's coming off that injury, so you've got to give him a little bit of a break here in terms of the way he's played. I'm surprised he's even playing as well as he is, just because he's not that far removed from that injury.
"Patterson's a freakish talent. Patterson will probably, I think, go ahead of Hunter after all's said and done. I'm ready to make that move and was ready to make that move a couple of weeks ago.
"I think Patterson's going to break into the top 25 [on the] big board at some point. I'm always reluctant with juniors, the wait-and-see, especially a first-year guy at the major college level, but Patterson's got a chance to be a guy, after all's said and done, that goes in the middle of the first. Hunter probably has a chance right now, if you look at him projecting, maybe more second round."
The NFL buzz around the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Hunter began back in the summer, but Patterson's stock only has risen with every juke, shake, spin move and highlight-reel touch of the football. His 145.3-yard all-purpose per-game average leads the SEC, and the 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior college transfer needs just 268 yards to break Tennessee's single-season all-purpose-yardage record. After a two-game midseason slump, Hunter has 30 catches for 482 yards with four touchdowns in his past four games.
Both said, though, that they are not thinking about their NFL prospects.
"Probably at the end of the season," Hunter said after Tuesday's practice. "I'm going to wait till after the season, just to finish up this and focus on what's important right now. I'm going to talk with my family over it, because they're going to be there with me to make my decision."
Patterson said he's maintained his focus on a season that's far surpassed even his own expectations individually.
"I ain't even been thinking about that," he said Tuesday. "I'm just trying to get this season over with and just see what God has planned for me."
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said in a conference call last month that both receivers should return to school for their senior seasons. At that point, Hunter was fresh off games against Georgia and Mississippi State in which he caught only five passes. The knock on Patterson always has been how raw he is in the intricacies of playing receiver such as route-running and reading coverages.
What became clear in the first quarter of the season opener -- and earlier for some teammates -- is that Patterson has an incredible amount of natural ability.
"Probably when he first stepped on campus this summer, when we first went out for our 7-on-7 and our individual drills," receiver Zach Rogers recalled. "You kind of knew he had a little twitch in him, and he's been making plays all year. He has a great future ahead of him."
Aside from a nine-catch, 219-yard eruption against Troy, Patterson's best receiving games came against North Carolina State (six catches, 93 yards and a touchdown) and Florida (eight catches, 75 yards and a touchdown), and he returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Mississippi State and scored on dazzling runs against N.C. State and Georgia.
A second touchdown run against Missouri in which Patterson shook a defender with a deadly juke was called back because he high-stepped into the end zone. Against Missouri and Mississippi State, he turned sure losses on reverses into unlikely gains. At his size, his ability to cut, spin and leave defenders reaching for air is impressive.
Though he'll likely also wow scouts and NFL personnel in a combine setting, one NFL scouting director believes Patterson isn't ready.
"He's a pretty instinctive football player," the scout said, "but he's not ready made to come into the league and play. He does have the physical talent."
Though he's disappeared at moments, dropped key passes in others and seen his position on Kiper's and McShay's boards drop slightly, Hunter remains one of the top-rated receivers in the class.
"I think his talent is so impressive that it's going to be hard to keep him out of the NFL," the scouting director said. "He's really a talented a kid, and even during some of his flops this season, the talent shows through. You see his size, his speed and his athletic ability, and he just looks like an NFL guy.
"He's going to have an easier road, because he's a good kid. He doesn't have a lot of problems. He's going to go to the workout and be outstanding."
Until the decision that will precede any workout, though, Hunter and Patterson are keeping their focus on a strong finish to their junior seasons with two games and perhaps a bowl left to play.
"I ain't talked about it with nobody yet," Patterson said, "but I know me and my family will probably talk about it when the season's over and see what's best for me."