Justin Hunter promising part of Vols' future

Tennessee freshman receiver Justin Hunter looks out on the practice field this week in preparation for Thursday’s Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl and sees the future.

Better yet, he’s a very promising part of that future.

The 6-4, 183-pound Hunter is a big reason why Tennessee fans think it’s just a matter of time before the Vols are competing for SEC championships again.

Hunter caught only15 passes this season, but six of those were for touchdowns. He averaged 27.1 yards per catch and is the kind of playmaker that’s only going to get better once he learns all the nuances of playing receiver at the collegiate level.

As an athlete, few are better. Hunter plans to run track and field for Tennessee this winter and again in the spring. He’s recorded a long jump of 25-10 ¾, a high jump of 7-3 and a triple jump of 49-5.

As freshman quarterback Tyler Bray discovered this season, it’s just about impossible to throw a ball too high for Hunter. He’s going to win most of those jump balls in the end zone and has uncanny body control.

“I see myself as a get-out-of-jail-free card when we’re down there,” Hunter joked. “All Tyler has to do is put it up there where nobody else can get it.”

Hunter and Bray are just a part of the young nucleus on offense that has Tennessee fans so excited for the future.

The Vols plan to start three true freshmen on the offensive line Thursday against North Carolina -- right tackle Ja’Wuan James, right guard Zach Fulton and center James Stone. Sophomore Dallas Thomas is the left tackle.

In addition to Hunter and Bray, fellow true freshman Da’Rick Rogers has also flashed his big-play potential several times this season. He’s a 6-3, 215-pound receiver who serves as the perfect complement to Hunter.

“He’s so big and physical, but is fast, too,” Hunter said. “They’re not going to be able to check both of us, and they can’t double-team us, either.”

As much as Hunter views the matchup with North Carolina as the start of next season, he said what’s most important about Thursday’s game is sending the seniors out the right way.

Hunter said they’re the ones who held the team together when Tennessee was 2-6 and staggering coming out of a winless October.

“We owe it to all those seniors for what they did for us,” Hunter said. “They put it all out there on the line and wouldn’t let this team quit. This game is very important to all of us, to make sure we finish this season off strong.

“But for the seniors, this is their last game. This is our last chance to thank them for not letting this season go down the drain.”

For Hunter, he wants to go into the offseason with some momentum, an offseason he says will be intense and no place for the meek.

“If you don’t want to get better, then don’t show up,” he said. “We want to keep what we have going in the bowl game and just keep on from there. We have just about everybody coming back on offense next year, but it’s what we do from here that counts.

“We all have to get better. I know I have to get better, and I will get better.”

Hunter has gained more than 10 pounds since arriving at Tennessee earlier this year, and he's also gotten stronger. He was struggling to get 185 pounds up on the bench press when he got here, but is now maxing out at 225.

“The next thing is route-running,” he said. “That was one of my flaws. I’ve gotten better, but not good enough.

“You learn real fast in the SEC that you’re never good enough at anything.”