Hunter's in the hunt

One Tennessee wide receiver clearly has gotten the jump on the competition this preseason.

Justin Hunter, a 6-4, 183-pound freshman from Virginia Beach, has been perhaps the most pleasant surprise of fall camp thus far. That's due at least in part to skills he developed in track as a high-jump and long-jump specialist.

Hunter caught three passes for 56 yards in Scrimmage No. 1 a week ago, then exploded with five grabs for 128 yards in Scrimmage No. 2 last Saturday night. His totals for the first two intra-squad competitions show eight catches for 184 yards, an eye-popping 23.0 yards-per-catch average.

Those numbers are stunning, even considering the reputation that preceded his arrival on The Hill earlier this summer. A two-sport superstar, he was rated America's No. 3 long jumper and No. 7 high jumper by Track & Field News, in addition to being ranked America's No. 11 receiver prospect by Scout.com.

Hunter caught 34 passes for 545 yards and 13 touchdowns as a high school junior, then added 46 grabs for 714 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior. Still, he was merely one-fourth of the most ballyhooed receiver class in college football - being joined by 5-star signee Da' Rick Rogers, plus fellow 4-stars Ted Meline (Miami, Fla.) and Matt Milton (Mascoutah, Ill.).

Meline and Milton got a head start by enrolling at mid-term and participating in spring practice. So, given Rogers' reputation and Hunter's lack of bulk, Hunter appeared likely to redshirt in 2010 and add some weight. After two quality scrimmage performances, however, Hunter now appears likely to play a key role for the Vols this fall.

"Justin's had a wonderful camp and has done a wonderful job," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said this week. "He catches balls and he's a phenomenal athlete, as we all know. I look forward to watching him play for a lot of years."

Tennessee's coaches always knew Hunter is a fast runner. They didn't realize until this month that he also is a fast learner.

"That's the thing: You don't know until you go out on the field how they learn," Chaney said. "How big is the sponge, basically? He has proved to have a lot of good football intellect. You keep throwing stuff at him, and he keeps swallowing it. That's been good."

Head coach Derek Dooley touched on the same theme, noting: "You never know how the freshmen are going to be, as far as taking the coaching, learning and progressing. That's always the challenge."

Clearly, Justin Hunter has taken the challenge. And, in doing so, he literally has gotten the jump on his competition.


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