Tennessee Football: Justin Hunter and 10 Stories Heading Into the Bye Week
The Tennessee Volunteers couldn't have asked for a better time for a bye after a shaky outing against the Florida Gators last Saturday.
Justin Hunter, the best wide receiver on the team, and arguably the best in the SEC, went down on his first catch with an ACL tear, ending his season. That single, seemingly harmless catch altered not only the game but the rest of the 2011 season for the Vols.
Still, Hunter's injury and the resulting consequences are just one of many stories that have made up the early part of the season for Tennessee.
Here are 10 topics for you and your Big Orange coworkers to talk about over the water cooler.
Justin Hunter out for the Season
What better place to start out than the title story? Justin Hunter's 2011 season is over before it really got going.
Hunter was on pace to rack up more than 1,800 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns. His speed and leaping ability opened up the middle of the field for Da'Rick Rogers to maneuver and for Tauren Poole and Marlin Lane to gash the defense with runs in the second half.
The Tennessee Volunteers can only hope that Hunter keeps his spirits up and works hard to be back by the summer and fall of 2012.
Hunter qualifies for and is sure to receive a hardship waiver and medical redshirt, making him a sophomore next year (though if he performs like I and many others expect him to, he'll be off to the NFL after next season anyway).
Tyler Bray's Scalding Start
Against the Gators Saturday, Tyler Bray extended his record streak of two passing touchdowns in a game to nine straight.
The Tennessee Volunteers quarterback has been drawing vague comparisons to Peyton Manning, which are warranted. When comparing the two Tennessee quarterbacks over their first two seasons, Bray is clearly in the same league as Manning.
Manning threw for 2,954 yards and 22 touchdowns as a sophomore in 1995; Bray is on pace to throw for a ridiculous 3,944 and 40 touchdowns.
Those stats are almost laughable and are certainly inflated due to Bray's great Cincinnati game, but let's cut both of Bray's numbers by a third: 2,643 yards and 27 touchdowns.
The Vols' signal-caller did, however, attempt at least a half dozen terrible throws against the Gators, many of which should have been picked off. In order to avoid the gunslinger stereotype, he'll need to curb his enthusiasm for such risks and pick his battles more wisely.
Tennessee's Terrible Running Game
Before the game with the Florida Gators, the Tennessee Volunteers running game was universally agreed upon as being subpar. Afterward, it's safe to call it downright bad.
In a performance that would have the mid-90s Vols shriek in disgust, Tennessee tallied an embarrassing minus-nine yards of rushing last Saturday. UAB was able to get 71 yards, while even Florida Atlantic managed 30 yards against the Gators.
The offensive line hasn't yet learned how to run block, although it does seem to be very good at pass blocking. Meanwhile, when the line finally does create a whole, running back Tauren Poole is rarely able to get more than a couple yards. Both units have some fault.
One mildly bright spot in the running game has been the emergence of freshman Marlin Lane, who looks great in pads. He is comfortable with the ball and has more physical ability than that of the senior Poole.
If Lane can come of age and begin breaking runs, it might inspire the line to block for him the same way they do for Tyler Bray.
I'm not a fan of kicker Michael Palardy and he hasn't done much to help change that.
He missed a makeable 43-yard field goal against Cincinnati that would've given the Tennessee Volunteers a two-score lead in a game that still hung in the balance at the time.
He also missed a backbreaking 37-yard field goal against the Florida Gators last Saturday on the drive right after the Gators scored a touchdown.
Kicking tends to be a momentum shifter. I'm not a huge proponent of the importance of the three or four (out of 80 total) special teams plays per game, but they certainly can lead to exclamation points or question marks.
Though it wasn't completely his fault, Palardy's first punt was blocked, giving Florida an extremely short field. You just have to get those off in big games, even if it means punting it early or running to the side—improvising is fine.
The two punts that he did get off went 39 and 37 yards. Unacceptable.
Side-spinning kickoffs have flown out of bounds and given opponents the 40-yard line to start from. The kicking needs serious work.
Curt Maggitt and Jacques Smith
Curt Maggitt and Jacques Smith are fun to watch coming off the same side of the defensive line! A freshman and sophomore, respectively, they are as fast of a duo as I've seen for the Tennessee Volunteers.
Defensive line coach Lance Thompson called Maggitt the best pass-rushing linebacker he has ever coached in fall practice, and now I see he wasn't just paying him lip service.
Smith's style and big play ability reminds me of former Florida Gator Jevon Kearse. I believe Smith is going to have a tremendous career in the Orange and White.
Maggitt chose Tennessee over Florida, so the game against the Gators had a little more weight with him. Maggitt tallied a nice six tackles, and except for Gator running back Chris Rainey's 80-yard dump-off touchdown, limited freshman mistakes.
Austin Johnson's Leadership
Middle linebacker Austin Johnson started his career as a Tennessee Volunteer at fullback. Then he was switched over the outside linebacker. Finally, head coach Derek Dooley found his spot in the middle.
The timing wasn't a moment too early either, since Johnson has to not only relay the defensive calls, but is also responsible for keeping his fellow linebackers, freshmen Curt Maggitt and AJ Johnson, in line.
Austin Johnson is a senior and is playing at a high level, but I believe his mark will be most evident by the way Maggitt and AJ Johnson excel after his tutelage. They'll anchor a defense that will compete for the SEC East, thanks in large part to the work Austin Johnson is putting in right now.
Impressive Performance of Malik Jackson's Defensive Line
The defensive line was the biggest question of the entire 2011 Tennessee Volunteers depth chart. They've been outstanding, especially considering the expectations of preseason "experts."
Senior Malik Jackson has led by example and remained healthy all year long. If that trend continues, the Vols should be able to salvage at least a 6-6 record with the loss of Justin Hunter.
Daniel Hood, Willie Bohannon and Marlon Walls have all contributed nicely on the line, though more penetration will be necessary to stop the kind of running backs that are coming up on Tennessee's schedule (i.e. South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore).
Ben Martin, mired in injury for most of his UT career, has been on and off the field this year, accumulating only two tackles on the season. Any playing time Martin can provide is a bonus.
DeAnthony Arnett's Response to Being Called Up
Freshman wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett was a nice recruiting victory for Derek Dooley's staff in February. The 4-star recruit by Rivals is from Michigan and had to be convinced to travel through all of Big Ten country to Knoxville, and he did so.
With the 2011 wide receiving corps looking formidable during the preseason, it was clear that Arnett was going to get a year to learn and grow with a redshirt. However, when Justin Hunter went down, it didn't take Dooley long to abandon that idea.
Arnett rose to the occasion and made me proud (as if that was his goal).
Playing primarily in the second half, Arnett amassed eight receptions to lead all receivers on Saturday. He ran several five to seven-yard out-routes and was a consistent pass-catcher when Tyler Bray targeted him.
After just one game, Arnett became the fourth-leading receiver on the Vols roster. His underneath style of play will be fun to watch as he grows into (hopefully) the No. 2 opposite Da'Rick Rogers this season.
Da'Rick Rogers and Zach Rogers Time Has Come
I predicted the Tennessee Volunteers would go 8-4 this season with wins over the Florida Gators and LSU Tigers (though I might've changed it to the Georgia Bulldogs by now).
I keep harping on it, but the loss of Justin Hunter is a season-changer. The offense, which was the Vols' greatest strength, simply doesn't click the same way and the deep threat is all but gone.
But let's not forget about former Rivals 5-star recruit Da'Rick Rogers and dependable Zach Rogers; it is their time to shine. Though they may not have the breakaway speed of Hunter, they both are quality receivers that, if they can be consistent pass-catchers, will still allow Tennessee to move the ball.
Both short to medium-range receivers, the Rogers duo play similar styles, which will require one—or both—to develop a downfield game.
I have confidence that the Vols will still be able to stretch the field from time to time. The bye week will work wonders for developing the area.
The Overall Impact of Underclassmen
Let's remember just one thing, Vol fans: the 2011 Tennessee Volunteers are a bunch of talented, energetic freshmen and sophomores.
The star quarterback is a sophomore. One of the two running backs is a freshman. Both of the receivers at the start of the year were sophomores, with two key slot receivers being freshmen. And four of the five starting lineman are sophomores.
The best pass-rushing defensive end is a sophomore. Two of the three linebackers are freshmen. And the secondary is such a motley crew of youngsters, I can't even tally them up!
Hell, even the kicker is a sophomore. The punter is a freshman. The punt returners are both freshmen. I could go on for days.
For the Big Orange to go into Gainesville with a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds, lose their best offensive playmaker, and still stay within 10 points is something to be proud of.
The boys where the Power T with the respect, and that's plenty enough for me.