Most NFL Draft big boards like this one from SB Nation have Tennessee receiver Justin Hunter going after his teammate Cordarrelle Patterson in this year's class of rookies. I don't really get the being "awesome but second" thing that has somewhat followed Hunter ("plagued" is too strong a word), because he has proven over his time at Tennessee that he's nearly as freakishly talented as the guys who tend to get more publicity, and he's so much more in everything else.
When Justin Hunter signed up to play for Derek Dooley in February of 2010, the 4-star from Virginia Beach joined 5-star Da'Rick Rogers and two other 4-star receivers in a wide-receiving class that was worthy of a program known as Wide Receiver U. Maybe it was all of the national talk about how Dooley and Tennessee "won" National Signing Day by landing a top 10 recruiting class for a program reeling from the sudden departure of one-year stand Lane Kiffin a mere three weeks prior. But regardless of how you looked at it, this was a solid class of receivers, and Hunter was second on the marquee.
Yes, Hunter was relegated to the shadow of Da'Rick Rogers in the spring and summer, but in the fall he began to emerge as one of the two most talented and the most reliable member of the group. Here's our Talking Points post from one of those early practices:
Talking Points for 8/16/10:
- You can tell football is right around the corner, as player features are popping up all over the place. Take, for instance, freshman wide receiver Justin Hunter, whom the players call "Bones." Words worming their way into quotes about Bones include the following: Incredible. Smart. Tall. Rangy. Huge hands. Very athletically gifted. Unbelievable. Phenomenal. Mature.
All of that's in one article, but the quotes are from five different people, including three different coaches. Hunter's heroics must have gone viral at the media session, as Jim Chaney apparently got bored with it and turned it on its head:"He doesn't run very well. He doesn't jump very well, and he's not very tall. He doesn't catch it well," Chaney said, grinning. "Has no talent. If he's any good it's all because of Charlie Baggett, our wide receivers coach."But then he got serious again, and again, here come the analogies:"We don't know until you go out on the field how they learn," Chaney said. "How quick can they learn? How big is the sponge, basically? He has proved to have a lot of good football intellect, and you just keep throwing stuff at him and he keeps swallowing it up. That's been good."So add "huge sponge" to the litany of compliments. Maybe we should call him SpongeBones.
That first year, Hunter caught 16 passes for 415 yards and 7 touchdowns. Yes, nearly half of his catches went for TDs. He played only two full games in 2011, catching 17 passes for 314 yards and 2 more TDs before landing awkwardly and tearing an ACL against the Florida Gators. Tennessee's season pretty much went in the tank after that.
In 2012, Da'Rick Rogers got himself kicked off team just prior to the season (after having flirted with it for about a year). But Hunter was healthy, and was joined by newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson, and with a healthy Tyler Bray under center, the passing game would end up being one of the best in the history of the program even without Rogers. Patterson was outrageously talented but a bit unpredictable with his route-running, so Hunter became Tyler Bray's favorite target and ended up catching 73 passes for 1,083 yards and 9 TDs.
Bottom line for Justin Hunter's Tennessee career? He somehow always seemed to be overshadowed by a more vocal or sensationalistic guy at his position, but he was always just as talented as the other guy in a more subdued way, and he was always more reliable. The guy's head is screwed on right. He's never been in any kind of trouble that I can remember. He's always had a fantastic, coachable attitude, and he does all of the little things well. In addition to that, he's incredibly talented, tall, fast, strong, with good hands and great leaping ability. For all of those reasons, I would take him even over Tennessee's other terrific receiver, Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson may be more exciting and have a higher upside, but can cannot beat the combination of talent, production, and certainty you get with Justin Hunter.