Grateful to seniors

One Tennessee freshman had no idea how far back the Vols' mastery of Kentucky extended until this week. Informed that the winning streak stands at 25 games, he smiled.

"I guess it's going to be at 26," wide receiver Justin Hunter said, flashing a sheepish grin.

Not if the Vols play as poorly as they did last Saturday at Vanderbilt. The performance that produced a lackluster 24-10 victory at Nashville won't cut it against a Kentucky team that is 6-5 and desperate to end a quarter-century of futility in this heated border rivalry.

Hunter insists the game is just as meaningful for the Vols.

"I think it's very important for the team," he said. "This is the last game for the seniors. They depend a lot on everybody, so they can get this last win. It means a lot to them, so we're going to play our hearts out in this last game."

Hunter will be playing especially hard for senior wideouts Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore. He owes much of his first-year success (15 receptions, 27.1 yards-per-catch average, 6 touchdowns) to them.

"I came here in July, and Gerald's been on me ever since on getting the formations right," Hunter said. "I thank him a lot for my success now, knowing where to line up. It's been hard, going from a high school offense to a college offense. It's been really difficult for me in a lot of ways."

Difficult perhaps, but not impossible. After recording just six receptions in the first five games, he broke loose in Game 6 at Georgia, catching four passes for 110 yards and a touchdown. He had another breakout performance in Game 10 vs. Ole Miss, catching three passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns.

"He's just a raw-talent athlete,"Jones said. "He's got great ball skills, great body control in the air. He's still young. He can get better with his route-running and technique but that comes with being a first-year player.

"The future holds a great deal of success for him if he allows it to. I think he will be a dominant player for this team in the upcoming years."

Clearly, Hunter has exceeded a lot of people's expectations - including his own.

"I think I have," he said. "I came out there playing hard, trying to earn a starting role in the offense. I think I worked up to my success."

Hunter was overshadowed by 5-star wideout signee Da' Rick Rogers when they showed up for the start of preseason drills in August. Hunter quickly moved ahead of his more celebrated classmate, however, by dazzling Vol coaches with his fluid running style and his incredible leaping ability.

"In practice I guess I showed ‘em I was more than a track guy ... I was a football guy," the 6-4, 181-pounder said. "I think that put confidence in ‘em to put me on the field, give me more reps."

Asked what specifically he did to impress the coaches, Hunter replied: "Just beat up some DBs in practice and show ‘em I could catch."

In addition to his contributions as a receiver, Hunter returned a couple of punts for 16 net yards in Game 4 vs. UAB. He hasn't been used in that capacity since, even though he is the only Vol to field a punt this fall without fumbling at least once. Asked if he'll be returning punts again anytime soon, Hunter shrugged.

"I don't know ... if the coach wants me out there," he said. "He ain't put me back there yet. I ran a few back (for touchdowns) in high school. I ran four back, three as a sophomore."

Regardless, Hunter expects Tennessee's offense to bounce back vs. Kentucky after its mediocre showing at Vanderbilt. That's partly because he expects freshman quarterback Tyler Bray to bounce back from a two-interception effort vs. Vandy.

"I think he played well still," Hunter said. "He kept his head up, even when he threw a bad pass. That proved a lot to me – that he's mature as a rookie. I've got confidence in him a lot."

Apparently, all of the Vols have a lot of confidence. After starting the season 2-6, they have beaten Memphis (50-14), Ole Miss (52-14) and Vanderbilt (24-10) the past three weekends.

"I think our confidence is high," Hunter said. "We're on a winning streak. Things are going good, and I think we're going to keep this confidence for the last game."

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