High praise

Mentioning a wide receiver in the same breath with Randy Moss is kind of like mentioning a racehorse in the same breath with Secretariat. It just doesn't get any better than that.

That's why Tennessee freshman Justin Hunter should be feeling his oats these days. Vol receivers coach Charlie Baggett sees some things in Hunter that remind him of Moss, whom he coached during a previous stint with the NFL's Minnesota Vikings.

"I've been around a lot of athletes over my 34 years of coaching, and I can tell you this kid is very, very talented," Baggett said following Wednesday's practice. "He has a knack for doing things on the football field that the normal athlete struggles to do ... and it comes so natural for him.

"He can leap. His running ability is exceptional because he's deceptive. He's a lot like Randy Moss in that respect. You think he's not running fast because of the long strides, then all of a sudden he's by you."

Hunter, who carries just 184 pounds on a 6-4 frame, concedes that his speed has surprised some of the defensive backs he has faced this fall.

"I think so," he said. "They figure all tall receivers are slow. I'm skinny and tall, and I think they underestimated me."

Justin Hunter is more than a tall guy who can run, however. Much more.

"He just has so many positives," Baggett said. "He can adjust to the ball and jump up over smaller DBs. He's got big hands. He catches the ball well in all parts of his body. He has very good running skills after he catches the ball. The sky's the limit for this kid."

Like Moss, Hunter has superior agility and a knack for the spectacular. He caught a 31-yard pass in Game 2 vs. Oregon, a 35-yard pass in Game 3 vs. Florida and a 37-yard pass in Game 5 vs. LSU. His yards-per-catch average of 21.0 is best on the team by nearly four yards. That's partly because the Vols run him on a lot of deep routes but partly because of his big-play abilities.

"I think it's a little bit of both," Baggett said. "We have designed some down-the-field passes for him but he has a knack for going up and catching the ball, so some of those intermediate passes turn into long ones."

For Hunter "going up" comes naturally. Track & Field News rates him America's No. 7 high jumper and the No. 3 long jumper. Unlike some previous Vol track stars who doubled as receivers - Sam Graddy and Leonard Scott, for instance - Hunter has football skills, as well as raw speed. The "track guy trying to play football" stereotype does not apply in his case.

"I've heard that a lot," he said, "but people are starting to change their minds now that they've seen I can take a hit and I'm not just a track guy; I'm a football player, too."

What separates Hunter from most "track guys" is that he is remarkably comfortable catching the football.

"He's got soft hands," Baggett said. "Some guys when the ball hits their hands you can hear it. When the ball hits his hands you can't hear it because his hands are so soft."

You're probably wondering: As talented as Hunter is, why isn't he playing 50 snaps per game?

"He's made as many mistakes as he has plays," Baggett said with a smile. "He's still got a long way to go. But we're going to get him in there and feed him as much as we can."

Hunter already has come a long way in a short time. He zoomed past two fellow freshman wideouts who got to participate in spring practice - Da' Rick Rogers and Matt Milton - with a spectacular preseason camp. That was no small feat.

"I think it's his mental capacity for the game," Baggett said. "He picks things up well. Kids who can do that, it comes to them a little bit easier and they can do it a little bit quicker."

Having coached some of the NFL's premier wideouts of the past 20 years, Baggett is reluctant to dish out lavish praise ... even regarding a prospect with Justin Hunter's potential.

"I don't want to get too high on him because he's young and he's got a lot to learn," Baggett said. "But he's so willing and he has the right attitude about everything. He's just a joy to coach."

Hunter will be even more of a joy to coach once he adds some weight and develops a better familiarity with Tennessee's offense and his role in it.

"As he learns more about the nuances of college football and receiving, I think he's going to be even better," Baggett said. "That's a little bit scary to me. I really am excited about what he can be and where he can go."


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