Sunday, September 18, 2011
Justin Hunter out for the season
By Edward Aschoff
Tennessee suffered a crushing blow when tests revealed Sunday that sophomore receiver Justin Hunter tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee and will need season-ending surgery.
Hunter suffered the injury on the fourth play of Tennessee's opening drive in Saturday's 33-23 loss to Florida when he landed awkwardly while making a 12-yard reception.
This is a major hit for the Volunteers' offense. Before Saturday's game, Hunter caught 16 catches for 302 yards and two touchdowns and had the potential to not only be Tennessee's best deep threat but one of the SEC's top receivers.
At 6-fee- 4-inches and 200 pounds, Hunter's size frustrated most corners in this league. Catches in traffic were made easier because of his ability to out jump most defenders and be more physical with smaller corners. When it came to route running, Hunter grew tremendously since arriving last year. He finished last season with 16 catches for 415 yards and seven touchdowns. He had a long of 81 yards last season and had a long of 80 in his three games this fall.
Tennessee's inability to develop a power running game means that quarterback Tyler Bray will be relied upon even more this season. He showcases one of the best arms in the league, but Saturday proved this team can't be one-dimensional. Now, being one-dimensional will be even more risky with the loss of a top playmaker like Hunter.
Da'Rick Rogers has been a solid weapon for the Vols and his number should be called even more this season, but expect defenses to really key in on him and smother him with double-teams before another receiving weapon steps up for Tennessee. There is some young talent on that roster, but no one has what Hunter had. No one is close enough to Hunter's ability to really help Rogers out. That means the Vols will have to go with strength in numbers.
Freshman receiver DeAnthony Arnett showed some promise Saturday, recording a game-high eight catches for 59 yards. It was the first time he touched the ball all season.
Tight end Mychal Rivera has 11 catches for 125 yards and touchdown in his two games of work, providing a meatier target for Bray in the middle of the field.
Now junior Zach Rogers (22 career catches) has to step up. Maybe freshman running back Marlin Lane can provide a spark. He made a couple of plays in the Florida game and can be used out of the backfield more.
With Bray's talent, the Vols should be able to get production out of its receiving game, but there will be plenty of times where Hunter's absence is greatly felt. Bray's leadership skills will need to be accelerated from this point on and we'll see how well he makes those around him better.