KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT/SUBMITTED) -- Being on crutches hasn’t prevented Tennessee sophomore wide receiver Justin Hunter from being a part of the team or becoming a better player.
Hunter, who underwent surgery in September to repair a torn ACL in his left knee suffered at Florida, has tried to maintain a positive mindset, not only to help himself, but his teammates as well.
“I’m just trying to coach the young guys up and tell them what they need to do,” said Hunter, who addressed the media for the first time since his injury. “I’m helping them read coverages and just (trying to) be like another player out there.”
The Virginia Beach, Va., native was ranked first in the SEC and among the top 10 nationally in both receptions and receiving yards at the time of his injury.
But he hasn’t stopped working.
“He can improve with his weightlifting and his physical strength,” head coach Derek Dooley said. “He can improve in the mental part of the game. There’s never a time where you can’t work on something to get better as a player.
“There’s always ways to improve as a player. When a guy is injured, it’s what we do with every player. How can we get you to play better when you come back? And that’s what we’re doing with Justin.”
While Hunter could’ve been devastated by his injury, he bounced back quickly.
“I just had to throw it out the window because it is going to be there and it happens to a lot of people,” Hunter said. “I just tried to forget about it and go on to the next thing.”
Hunter is expected to return to the field for spring practice in March.
“I’m ready for him to get off the crutches,” Dooley said. “That will make me feel better when he’s walking around, but every indication I’m getting is that he’s recovering well. He’s staying around the team. He brings good energy around the guys. That’s important.”
In some respects, Hunter’s already back in action.
“If I can’t play on the field, I play on the Xbox sometimes as myself to get my stats up,” Hunter said.
YOUNG AND FEARLESS
From the moment he first touched the ball in a Tennessee uniform, freshman Devrin Young has been making electric plays on special teams and offense. The Knoxville native grew up following the Orange and White and is honored to pull on his No. 19 jersey each and every day.
“Being from here, I know how it is tradition-wise and fans-wise,” said Young, who had been to numerous Vols’ games as a fan. “But to experience it, on the team, is a little different being on the outside looking in.
“Wherever you go there are questions about football. You obviously want to have something good to say about the situation, it’s not necessarily pressure, you just don’t want to let anybody down.”
Young nearly took his first college football touch for a score against Buffalo with a 43-yard kickoff return in his first action at Neyland Stadium.
“My first time being on the field, I was a little nervous,” said the Bearden High School grad. “After the play was over, I was very happy. I felt like I had earned a little of the team’s respect.”
He has continued to pile up yards and leads the team with 457 kickoff return yards to go along with 73 punt return yards as part of 560 all-purpose yards with the Vols.
The start to his career at UT was slightly derailed as he suffered a broken collarbone just days before the start of his first college training camp. But he has recovered to make an impact
“At first, I was a little frustrated,” Young said. “But I took it as an opportunity, just to adjust mentally to the game, taking mental reps and catching on to the speed. I used it as an opportunity to heal up and come back full speed.”
In addition to his exploits on special teams, Young has been part of the offense seeing time as a tailback and receiver. He hopes to get more action in the final four regular-season games.
“I just see myself being used how a small guy gets used in an offense,” Young said. “(Using) speed and getting to the perimeter. Coach Dooley talks about our role and you get what you earn, so I’m just working hard and hopefully I can increase my role.”
Dooley has been trying to figure out how to use Young, who missed all of training camp and the first three games of the season.
“What was tricky about Devrin was I didn’t really see him do anything until the week of the Florida game in practice,” said Dooley. “He looked what we thought he was going to look like when we signed him that week and I just wanted him to get two weeks of practice before we put him out in a game. Of course, the first time he touched it, I said, ‘That’s what we were wanting.’ He’s gotten better each week. But he’s also going to be like this a little bit because he’s learning how to prepare.”
Junior linebacker Herman Lathers, who has missed all of the 2011 season recovering from an ankle injury, practiced with the team for the first time this year.
“Herman got some good scout team work today,” Dooley said. “I wouldn’t say he’s full-blow ready to go but it was good to see him get his pads on and take a couple hits. We’ll just kind of monitor him day-by-day. He’s not close to 100 percent so we don’t want to get too excited.”
Lathers won’t play Saturday against Middle Tennessee and no timetable has been set for his return.
In an effort to maximize the production of its most talented defensive lineman, Tennessee has been working senior Malik Jackson back in at his original position of defensive end a few times a game.
“Coach Thompson decided to put me on the edge a little bit more to get some fast rushers off the edge,” Jackson said. “I’ve been
down here practicing with (offensive linemen) Dallas Thomas and Ja’Wuan James (in practice) and it’s working pretty well in the games so we’ll just keep doing it.”
Working pretty well indeed. In the last two games alone, Jackson has posted three tackles for loss, including his first two sacks of the year. He stopped Alabama’s A.J. McCarron for a loss of four and dropped South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw seven yards behind the line of scrimmage. A disruptive force in the Gamecock backfield all night long, Jackson also recorded a pair of quarterback hurries last Saturday.
For the season, Jackson is third on the team in total tackles with 41 and leads the squad with 6.5 tackles for loss. He is also tied for the team high in both sacks (2.0) and quarterback hurries (5).
“I’ve been pretty happy with my production so far this year,” Jackson said. “We’ve been working on the run really hard this season, so I’ve been happy I’ve been stout on the run. I’m a little disappointed in my pass (defense) but I just have to realize during the season to let it go and I cannot just think about getting sacks. I’ve just got to work and let it come to me like it did in the Alabama game.”
Head coach Derek Dooley
(On the Vols’ start to November)
“We had a good spirited practice today. It was a good start to November. We gave them two days off physically to recover their bodies and clear their minds. It’s something we do after a number of weeks back-to-back-to-back. I think it helped them. We just have to keep doing what we’re doing, planting grass and it’ll come.”
(On having an extra day off)
“We would’ve done it had we been 9-0 or had we played Alabama this weekend. It’s all based on calendar. You know right at the beginning of the season when you’re doing it. The monotony of doing something so many weeks in a row can take its toll. I can see it really taking its toll earlier with our young guys.”
(On Tennessee’s quarterback situation)
“I’m planning on doing whatever we have to do to win the football game. Justin is going to start. I hope he plays well and we expect him to play well. If we’re not getting anything done and the situation dictates that we have to make a change, it’s no different than any quarterback. We have to do what we can to win the game. That’s what matters.”
(On possibly playing Byron Moore at safety)
“That’s an option. Byron has been getting most of his work at nickel and that’s where he’s starting to play real well. Now, he has to start practicing at safety. I’m a little nervous about putting two first-year guys back there at safety. I don’t know what the answer is except time.”
Sophomore center Alex Bullard
(On quarterback sneaks)
“The whole thing about the quarterback sneak is that it is just a pride play. It is basically whoever wants it more. On the first one we ran (against South Carolina), they got up under us and we didn’t do a good job of pushing them off the ball so that was our fault. The second time we drove them out of there and got some yards. That’s all pride. It’s not scheme, it’s not what play we are running. It’s just that you need to get an answer so you put your hand down and you go.”
(On Marcus Jackson)
“For his first time out there, he did really good. He made some good blocks and just gained some experience. He’s far along. There are very few freshmen linemen that can go out there and compete the way he competed on Saturday with the confidence and technique that he did. He’s just really physical and competes hard. That’s what we want. When he blocks, he tries to blow the person off the ball in front of him. That’s what we need and that’s the attitude that our line has to have to be successful.”
Senior defensive lineman Malik Jackson
(On Tennessee’s defensive improvements)
“We’ve just been working harder. The defense got together as a whole and made sure we learned our stuff. We’ve been trying just to do our jobs and go out there and play for each other and have fun.”
(On the team’s vibe at practice)
“Everyone’s spirits are up. We’re working hard and Coach Dooley says we’ve got four more games and it can change our whole season. We’re going to go out and have one game seasons and try and win them.”
(On the return of Herman Lathers to the practice field)
“It’s good to see Herman back out there. We’re all glad he’s back out here working.”
(Reflecting on Herman Lathers’ injury during the summer)
“I wasn’t there but I was heartbroken when I heard about it because he is such a good guy. When you get guys like that hurt in a walk-through it’s unfortunate. It is what it is, he’s a great guy, he’s in good spirits and he’s a team leader so it’s good to have him back.”
Sophomore wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers
(On his dropped pass from Justin Worley that potentially could have been a touchdown)
“It hurt dropping a ball that easy. I haven’t dropped a ball that easy since my junior year of high school. I’ve just got to focus a little harder. I probably just took my eye off the ball a little bit.”
(On the importance of making that catch for QB Justin Worley)
“I’ve definitely got to make that play for Worley. For his confidence and everything else. I went to him right after the play and told him I owed him one. I’ve really got to come out here this week and focus on the whole route, catching the whole ball and not getting too excited about getting in the end zone. I looked up and saw the end zone and it went right through my hands. That’s on me. I’ve got to make that play for the team.”
(On staying focused while moving out of conference play against MTSU)
“When you play in the SEC, October is going to be rough and that’s at every school. You know that coming in and you see it on the schedule way back in January. Really, you just have to keep your focus one game at a time and that’s what we are doing right now.”