KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter has been thinking about this game for an entire year.
Ever since he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a 33-23 loss to Florida last September, Hunter has awaited Tennessee’s next shot at the Gators. His chance finally comes Saturday when the 23rd-ranked Volunteers open Southeastern Conference competition against No. 18 Florida in front of a sellout crowd at Neyland Stadium.
“I just want to show them what I can do for real, when I’m 100 percent,” Hunter said.
It isn’t that Hunter has any hard feelings toward the Gators. His injury didn’t come from a dirty hit, or even from any contact at all. He simply considers this a case of unfinished business.
“That’s a game that I left on the field and wish I could have back,” Hunter said.
Hunter leads the SEC with 17 catches and ranks second in the conference with 219 receiving yards, behind only Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews. His 17 catches have tied Johnny Mills’ 46-year-old school record for the most through the first two games of a season.
He got off to a similar start last year.
Hunter was leading the SEC in receiving and Tennessee had an undefeated record as the Vols headed into Gainesville. On Tennessee’s opening possession, Hunter caught a 12-yard pass for a third-down conversion and landed awkwardly on his left knee.
“I knew immediately it was serious,” Hunter said. “As soon as I landed, I felt something pop and I just fell to the ground. It started stinging.”
Hunter wouldn’t play again the rest of the year. Tennessee wasn’t the same without him.
The Vols fell to Florida and finished 5-7 for their second consecutive losing season. Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said after the Florida game that “it was clear that it was a break in your spirit” when the Vols saw Hunter go down.
“Once Justin got hurt, I don’t think we responded like we should,” Tennessee cornerback Prentiss Waggner said.
The Vols believe they’re more confident this year. One big reason for that change in attitude is the presence of a healthy Hunter, who has shown few signs of rust in his return.
Hunter’s ability to use his length to outfight defenders for the ball has caught the Gators’ attention. Hunter is 6-foot-4 and teammate Cordarrelle Patterson is 6-3, giving Tennessee’s receivers a height advantage over Florida’s secondary. Florida cornerbacks Marcus Roberson, Cody Riggs, Jaylen Watkins and Loucheiz Purifoy are all 6-1 or shorter.
“He’s one of their receivers where if they get anywhere close to the red zone, they’re just going to throw the ball up and he’ll come down with the ball somehow,” Florida linebacker Jon Bostic said.
Hunter benefits from the fact that Tennessee has plenty of playmakers in its receiving corps, even after former all-SEC selection Da’Rick Rogers’ preseason transfer to Tennessee Tech. Patterson ranks first in the SEC with 360 all-purpose yards. Although Hunter led the Vols with nine catches in a season-opening 35-21 victory over North Carolina State, Tyler Bray’s two long touchdown passes in that game went to Patterson and Zach Rogers.
Hunter made a bigger impression last week in a 51-13 blowout of Georgia State. He caught eight passes for 146 yards and tied a school record with three touchdown receptions.
“Honestly, I think he’s got a little more explosiveness than he did last year,” Zach Rogers said. “I know it’s hard to believe, but coming out every day and watching him, he’s still jumping over people and doing all the things Justin Hunter does, but he’s learning things better. It’s great to see him looking at coverages and adjusting his routes and being a smarter player.”
Florida should give Hunter the biggest test of his comeback season. The Gators haven’t allowed a single touchdown pass through their first two games.
“It’s going to be a little tougher,” Dooley said. “This is going to be a whole different philosophy in the secondary. They’re going to put their hands on us and play deny the ball. They’re going to grab. They’re going to push. It’s going to be physical. We have to go out there and match it.”