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Thursday, September 15, 2011
Vols' Hunter, Rogers on a fast track

By Chris Low

Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers
Justin Hunter (11) and Da'Rick Rogers (21) are downplaying any comparison to previous great receiving duos at Tennessee.
When you start reciting the names of some of the most dynamic receiving combos in Tennessee’s storied football history, it’s a list that grows longer every time you do it.

In terms of pure talent, the Alvin Harper-Carl Pickens duo in 1990 has few peers.

You want production? Go back and look at what Joey Kent and Marcus Nash did in 1996, Marcus Nash and Jermaine Copeland in 1997 (Peerless Price was also a big part of that receiving corps) and Donte Stallworth and Kelley Washington in 2001.

Going back even further, Anthony Hancock and Willie Gault helped elevate Wide Receiver U. to national prominence in the early 1980s, and before that, there was the famed twosome of Larry Seivers and Stanley Morgan.

It appears that another dynamic duo may be on its way in Vol Land.

Sophomores Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers have been sensational through two games this season. They’ve combined for 31 catches, 502 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

They also have one of the hottest quarterbacks in the country throwing to them. Fellow sophomore Tyler Bray leads the SEC in passing with 698 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions.

If the three of them were playing basketball right now, the rim would look like a crater on the moon.

That’s how hot they are.

“Call us Ray Allen. We’re in a groove right now,” Hunter said. “I’m not going to say we’re unstoppable, but we’re in a good place right now to keep it going.”

As good as the Vols have been throwing the football, they haven’t really been tested.

That changes Saturday in the Swamp against a fast, athletic Florida defense that has given up only one field goal in its first two games. But like the Vols, the Gators also haven’t been tested.

“We’re playing a team that’s just as young as we are,” Rogers said. “It’s going to be great to play a well-coached defense with great athletes to see just exactly where we are.”

Even though they’re sophomores, Bray, Hunter and Rogers understand unequivocally that you don’t define your legacy against Cincinnati and Montana.

In this league, and specifically at Tennessee, you define your legacy by how you play against Alabama, Georgia … and Florida.

Bray has thrown 22 touchdown passes in his last seven games dating back to last season, all starts. His arm talent is undeniable, and he’s shown a steely presence in the pocket.

But he’s also yet to face a marquee defense during that stretch, which makes Saturday’s game one Bray has had circled for some time.

“They’re going to keep asking that question, saying I haven’t played against a good defense and all that, until you win a game like this,” Bray said. “I guess this game will tell.”

Always Mr. California Cool, Bray’s eyes light up when you ask him about his two receivers.

The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Hunter is averaging 18.9 yards per catch and establishing himself as one of the best deep threats in the league. The 6-3, 215-pound Rogers leads the Vols with three touchdown catches. He’s a big, physical target who’s as comfortable going over the middle as he is going up and making plays down in the red zone.

The Vols are the only school with two players ranked among the top 20 nationally in receptions per game. Hunter has 16 and Rogers 15.

They’re both fiercely competitive and gig each other about who’s the more productive player. Hunter had seven touchdown catches as a freshman and Rogers only two.

Rogers ran several reverses last season, but was really more of an athlete playing receiver.

Both have improved dramatically as route-runners and knowing where the soft spots are in a defense. They’ve taken that step from being talented athletes who could go into a game and make a big play to talented wide receivers who are consistent threats to change the complexion of a game every time they touch it.

They also realize how much they help each other. Defenses can’t shadow either one of them.

“It really puts defenses in a bind because they can’t do exactly what they want to,” Rogers said. “They have to respect both of us, and if they don’t, I know Coach [Jim] Chaney is going to dial it up on them.”

Rogers said Hunter is “freakish” with his speed, body control and great leaping ability. If there’s a jump ball to be had, Hunter -- a long jumper and high jumper on the Vols’ track team -- is almost always going to come down with it.

As for Rogers, he’s the kind of receiver who overpowers cornerbacks, but still has the speed and athletic ability to make big plays.

“I want to have DBs scared to touch me,” Rogers said.

The Vols also made it a point to teach Hunter and Rogers all three receiver positions in their offense.

“We started doing that in training camp because when you have some pretty good wideouts, what you can’t do is just put them in the same spot all the time,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “Any average defense could take them away, much less a good one.

“We’ll try to keep moving them all over and create ways to get the ball to them. Hopefully, they can continue their production.”

Confidence is not an issue for either Hunter or Rogers, but they’re smart enough not to be pulled into some of the inevitable comparisons with some of the great receivers to come through Tennessee.

“I’ve heard it, but I’m not ready to put us in that category,” Hunter said. “It’s only been two games.”

Rogers was even more blunt.

“Let’s beat a few people first and see where it goes,” Rogers said.

Taking the Gators down in the Swamp, something the Vols haven’t done since 2003, would certainly qualify.

For that matter, Tennessee hasn’t beaten Florida, period, since 2004. Bray, Hunter and Rogers were all still in middle school.

“We’ve been saying, ‘Shock the world,’ because nobody expects us to win this game or do anything this year,” Bray said. “They say we’re too young and too inexperienced, but we’re going to go out there and try to shock the world.”