What Happens If Tennessee Loses Both Its Star Receivers to NFL Draft?

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterDecember 18, 2012

Former Tennessee WR Justin Hunter
Former Tennessee WR Justin HunterJim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

With one word, Justin Hunter's Tennessee career was over.

The rising senior wide receiver caught 73 passes for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns in his first season back from ACL surgery, and that was enough for Hunter to move on to play on Sundays.

Hunter announced his future intentions on his Twitter page.


— Braylon J. Hunter (@justinhunter_11) December 17, 2012

Good for Hunter. He had some issues with drops in 2012, but he has the size and speed to make a big impact at the next level.

So where do the Tennessee Volunteers go from here?

Convincing junior Cordarrelle Patterson to stick around would be a good start for new head coach Butch Jones.

But after Patterson caught 46 passes for 778 yards and five touchdowns, rushed 25 times for 308 yards and three touchdowns, returned four punts for 101 yards and a score and returned 24 kicks for 671 yards and a touchdown; that's not likely.

Assuming Patterson bolts, Tennessee will be losing its top-five wide receivers; and no Vol wide receiver will have more than 13 catches for his career.

Jones brought Mike Bajakian from Cincinnati to run his offense, which, like former offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's system—features wide receivers and an up-tempo pace.

That means players like Vincent Dallas, Jacob Carter, Alton "Pig" Howard and a relatively unproven bunch will have to step up.

The one thing that Tennessee has going for it next season is that it will likely have one of the top offensive lines in college football returning.

It was reported on Monday that tackle Ja'Waun James and guard Zach Fulton will return to Knoxville, meaning that four starters will return on a Vol offensive line that led the SEC in sacks allowed in 2012 (eight).

That will help Bray or whomever wins the starting quarterback job this offseason, but it should have a significant impact on the Vols' running game, which is returning essentially its entire rushing attack minus Patterson, should he declare.

Rajion Neal proved this season that he can be a star in the SEC when healthy, rushing for 708 yards and five touchdowns. If he can hit the ground running during his senior season, it will stabilize the offense and ease the transition to the new regime. 

Tennessee fans will have to have patience with the new staff. The loss of playmakers outside will certainly make the offense look different than it did last season and different than the offenses Jones featured with the Bearcats. But a veteran offensive line should help ease the transition and get things going in the right direction on Rocky Top.