By Alex Norman
On Saturday, April 20th there were more than 61,000 fans on hand at Neyland Stadium for the Orange & White Game, Tennessee’s annual spring scrimmage.
One of those spectators wore a red and white striped shirt, and took the time to sign autographs for any fans that asked for his John Hancock.
That fan was Justin Hunter, a player you’ll see all over the Tennessee record books, even though his college career was limited due to injury and his decision to skip his senior season.
Hunter stands third all-time in Tennessee history for receiving yards in a season (1,083 in 2012) and eleventh in career receiving yards (1,182 from 2010-2012). His eighteen career touchdown catches is good enough for fifth place.
But Hunter had the misfortune of attending the University of Tennessee during the worst three-year stretch in program history. The Vols went 16-21 from 2010-2012, and never has had a winning season during that time.
“It taught me a lot about tradition, especially going to the next level,” said Hunter. “It taught me how to be part of a team… we had a lot of losing seasons so, we had to stay humble through the whole thing.”
Hunter’s college career, and perhaps the direction of the Vols football program, would have been different had he not torn the ACL in his left knee in the first quarter of the Vols loss at Florida in 2011.
It’s hard to remember now, but Tennessee was coming off an impressive win over Cincinnati (the Bearcats were led by new UT coach Butch Jones), and had some momentum going with a high powered offense that featured Hunter, receiver Da’Rick Rogers and quarterback Tyler Bray.
Hunter, like all Vols alums, is hoping for the program to return to its place among the SEC’s elite.
“They lost a lot of us, and they’ll be in a rebuilding stage,” said Hunter.
Hunter’s decision to leave Tennessee came as no real surprise to Vols fans. While his 2012 season was a solid one (he led the Vols with 1083 receiving yards, nine touchdowns and 73 catches), the explosive, big plays that he was known for during his freshman and beginning of his sophomore season were hard to come by.
It is hard to blame Hunter if he looked tentative on the playing field. He was still recovering from that knee injury, and one misstep or hit in the wrong place could have cost him a big NFL payday.
Over the past few months Hunter has worked out for NFL teams, met with NFL coaches, and had a very impressive showing at the NFL Combine back in February. He ran a 4.4 40 yard dash, and his jumping/leaping abilities were something to behold. Hunter’s vertical jump was registered at 39.5 inches, while his broad jump was 136 inches. Those last two marks were tops at the combine among all draft prospects.
“They definitely like my hands, like how I can track the ball,” said Hunter. “They love how I stretch the field and open it up for other guys.”
Hunter is also 6’4” and 196 pounds, with a 33 ¼’ arm length. He has all the tools for a long and productive career in the National Football League. But he realizes that natural ability will only take him so far.
“I’m going to go in there and work hard, show the veterans that I can play with them, and just show them that I am a hard worker,” said Hunter. “When I hear my name (at the draft) I’m going go crazy… I’m ready for it.”
On Thursday, April 25th, former Vols receiver Cordarrelle Patterson was picked 29th overall by the Minnesota Vikings. The first round came and went without Hunter’s being selected. But he didn’t have to wait very long the next day.
And it wont take very long to move to his new home too… The Tennessee Titans grabbed Hunter with the 34th overall selection. The cost was great though. The Titans didn’t think Hunter would still be on the board when they picked 40th. So they swapped spots with San Francisco, giving up a seventh round pick in 2013 and a third round pick in 2014 to do it.
“For us, (Hunter) was on a different level grade-wise than the rest of the players on the board,” Titans General Manager Ruston Webster told TitansOnline.com. “It was not even really close for us. With him sitting there we just saw this great opportunity to get a really talented wide receiver with a lot of upside. That was really it. We liked Justin Hunter a lot. He was a target for us.”
This move could mean the end of the road in Nashville for veteran receiver Nate Washington. It also means the Titans have quite a one-two punch at receiver in terms of young, talented pass catchers. Kenny Britt and Justin Hunter give quarterback Jake Locker some quality options.
Now it is up to Hunter to prove he is worthy of the confidence shown in him by Titans management.