After struggling mightily to run the football, it looked as though the Volunteer offense could still strike fear into the hearts of opponents with its vertical passing game.
Then, on the Vols' fourth offensive play of the game against Florida, at 3:54 EST, it happened.
Wide receiver Justin Hunter, in typical playmaker fashion, picked up his offense by coming down with a 12-yard reception to move the chains on third-and-long. Before No. 11 even got both feet back safely to the turf, hearts started to drop as Hunter collapsed in pain of what would eventually be diagnosed with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
As the Virginia Beach, Va., native rehabilitates his left knee and crutches his way around the campus in Knoxville over the next several weeks, Tennessee football fans ask — what now?
"I think the way you look at it in sports, as in life, when someone gets hurt or when someone dies you have to move on," said wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett, who is as responsible for Hunter being at UT as anyone and has glowed about the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder since his arrival. "It is what it is. I think the team knows that Justin was a big part of what we did and who we are. Somebody is going to have to step up and take that challenge."
After averaging 18.5 yards per reception and quickly becoming one of the most complete pass catchers in the country, Hunter's absence leaves a gap of production. The Tennessee staff said it is taking a "receiver corps by committee" approach to make up for that yardage.
Baggett is high on Zach Rogers' experience and said the junior "brings a lot to the table" and has zero issues with lining up the Nashville native out wide early and often.
DeAnthony Arnett, a 6-foot, 175-pound freshman out of Saginaw, Mich., hadn't caught a pass before the trip to "The Swamp" but he picked up some of the slack with eight receptions for 59 yards in the 33-23 loss.
In fielding a more dynamic look, a trio of players — Rajion Neal, Matt Milton and Devrin Young — figure to help Tennessee move the chains. Each is still learning how to make themselves more well-rounded and contribute to the aerial attack.
|Tennessee sophomore wide receiver Matt Milton comes down with the first reception of his college career.|
The 58-year-old Baggett has 33 years of coaching experience, including 11 season in the NFL, where he coached nine 1,000-yard receivers. He said that hands are nice to have when recruiting wideouts but it is a skill that can be taught.
"Some guys you can get them better at catching the ball," he said. "Some guys have 'natural hands' — that's what we call it in the war rooms in the NFL, just have natural hands. Some guys have it, some guys don't. We work on it all the time. We use the JUGS machine after practice. We work with the quarterbacks. We give them opportunities to get better at catching the football."
At 6-5, 210, it would appear as though sophomore Matt Milton would be a candidate to fill Hunter's deep-ball shoes, presenting matchup problems for vertically-challenged defensive backs. However, there's been more than one reason that Milton hasn't seen the field much in his college career.
Baggett didn't say Milton's issues have only been ball skills: "I don't think so. I think it's a combination of a whole lot of things — guys in front of him, his level of maturity, his advancement in route running and all the intricacies of being a receiver. He's come a long way. Very pleased with where he is."
With a solid two weeks of practice and the opportunity clearly set in front of him, Milton looks poised to finally get an opportunity in game action. He caught his first and only career pass in the second half against Florida.
"Matt will play this week. He's come along good, practicing a lot better. Again, some guys mature faster than others, some guys come along we feel more comfortable with a little bit earlier. So, in Matt's case, he's come along pretty good," Baggett said.
One of the roster's more dynamic athletes is Neal, who is a running back turned receiver. The sophomore sprained a knee during preseason camp and has struggled to get on the field in the first three games.
"Well, you know I think Rajion has come along good," Baggett said. "He got his feet wet this summer because he worked out with the receivers quite a bit and Tyler (Bray), the quarterback. So, I am excited to see how well he comes along at receiver. Being on the outside as opposed to being in the backfield is a little bit different. But, a guy that has that kind of athletic ability and speed, they catch on pretty good."
While Young's No. 1 purpose for being a part of the 2011 signing class was to contribute as a punt and kick returner, the Knoxville native also figures to get his chance in various formations.
"Well, I think (Young) can do a lot of things," Baggett said, "and that's part of the thing that (offensive coordinator) Jim (Chaney) and the offensive coaches and I are trying to figure out is where Devrin can help us best? Anytime you've got a guy that has that kind of speed and elusiveness, you've got to find a way to get the ball into his hands in open space and that's what we're trying to do."
Playcalling becomes much simpler when a simple dump-off pass to avoid a sack can turn into an 83-yard touchdown. Baggett knows having a weapon ilke that to the Vol offense could be quite useful.
"Oh please, you look at what Florida did to us with (Jeff) Demps and (Chris) Rainey and they just change ballgames," he said. "It helps at all levels. So, we're excited to have a guy like Devrin that can do some things and use that speed in the open field. So, that's going to be exciting to see."
Another freshman, Vincent Dallas, caught his first ball against Florida and looked spectacular at times in summer practice. However, he is struggling some to learn the offense. A square in instead of a 10-yard out can turn into a pick-six in a hurry.
"That's the thing, these young guys have to pick things up in order to execute without thinking and that makes them play faster. So, I think Vincent has come along good, but he still has a little ways to go," Baggett said.
Kickoff for the Vols against the Buffalo Bulls at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville is Saturday at 12:35 p.m. EST.
To hear more about the Tennessee offense, click on the player below to listen to offensive coordinator Jim Chaney following practice this week.