JUSTIN HUNTER FEARED THE WORST. WHEN THE TENNESSEE RECEIVER FELL TO THE GRASS last Sept. 17, moments after catching a 12-yard pass in the first quarter of the Volunteers' clash with Florida at the Swamp, Hunter closed his eyes and tried to fight through images of a most unhappy ending. "I was thinking worst-case scenario," Hunter says now, "as if my career was over." The ensuing news was not as cataclysmic but was devastating nonetheless: The team's leading receiver would miss the remaining nine games of 2011 with a torn ACL in his left knee. It was a painful blow to what had the makings of a potent Tennessee offense, a unit that had averaged 43.5 points in its first two games largely riding the wind beneath Hunter's wings.
In his only action last season, against Montana and eventual Big East champion Cincinnati, the 6' 4", 200-pound wideout hauled in 16 catches for 302 yards—which even at season's end remained good enough for the third-highest total on the team. With Hunter out and the running game stalled, Tennessee just couldn't keep up in the SEC. The loss of their star, says coach Derek Dooley, "really broke the spirit of not just our offense, but our team."
A constant big-play threat, Hunter had already delighted fans with his stellar freshman season in 2010. The Virginia Beach native's seven receiving touchdowns that year were a Tennessee freshman record and the third-most on the team. Hunter garnered All--SEC Freshman Team honors and was one of seven true freshmen to appear in every game for the Vols. Says Dooley, "He has shown skill sets that very few receivers have."
With a repaired knee—he had surgery 10 days after the ligament tear—that he estimates will be "100 percent back" by the end of the summer, Hunter is poised to put his shortened sophomore season behind him. He's a superb athlete (as a high schooler Hunter was a state champion in the high jump and the long jump) and during Tennessee's spring practice, he showed shades of his old skills when he reeled in a 50-yard touchdown catch in a scrimmage. That was Hunter's first game-style action since his injury.
"I did a lot that they didn't think I would be able to do [in the spring]," Hunter says, "so that really boosted my confidence."
The history of pass catchers at Tennessee, once referred to as Wide Receiver U, includes such prolific targets as highfliers Joey Kent, Peerless Price and Donte Stallworth. Though the moniker has not applied during Tennessee's recent struggles, the Volunteers have seen in Hunter's short career a player capable of resurrecting it. When Hunter had career highs with 10 catches and 156 yards against Cincinnati last season, he and fellow sophomore Da'Rick Rogers became the first Tennessee pair to have 100-yard receiving games in the same game since 2007.
Hunter again headlines the Volunteers' revamped—and healthy—offense going into what could be the junior's last turn on Rocky Top; the NFL may beckon after this season. With quarterback Tyler Bray returning under center, Hunter likes the combination and how it represents this deeper, more mature Vols squad.
"We're going to be older and we're going to have that drive to win," Hunter says. "Everybody wants it more than last year. We can bring this back."