BY BRIAN RICE
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The 2011 season couldn't have gotten off to a better start for Justin Hunter.
Through Tennessee's first two games, Hunter had already hauled in 16 receptions for 302 yards, setting a Vol record for the most receiving yards through the first two games of a season and putting himself atop the NCAA in receptions and receiving yards per game.
Against Cincinnati, Hunter led all receivers with 156 yards and a touchdown, as quarterback Tyler Bray threw for a career-high 405 yards and three scores in a 45-23 rout.
Just one week later, however, Hunter's 17th reception of the year would change everything.
Playing against Florida in `The Swamp,' Tennessee's fourth offensive play placed it third-and-10 at its own 30-yard line. Hunter lined up as the inside receiver on the near side in a three-wide set.
With 9:18 left in the first quarter, Bray took the shotgun snap, stepped up and fired a strike to a leaping Hunter. By the 9:13 mark, Hunter's season was over. The grab was good for 12 yards and a first down, but Hunter collapsed to the turf, clutching his knee.
The torn ACL was the first serious injury Hunter had suffered in his entire athletic career, and was a wake-up call for the two-sport star.
"Even going back to high school, my coach told me not to take anything for granted," Hunter said. "You could be the one to miss a year or miss a whole career, and I was one of those kids that said `That's not going to happen to me, that can't happen to me.'"
After months of grueling rehab, the Tennessee Sports Medicine staff had Hunter back on the field in time for limited work in spring practice. Sporting a non-contact jersey for spring drills, Hunter participated in the majority of practice sessions, even making an appearance in the second spring scrimmage, where he hauled in a 50-yard touchdown pass the first time Bray threw the ball in his direction.
As spring turned to summer, Hunter's rehab included participating in the full off-season workout program with his teammates. It also included sessions with another player that had come to Knoxville in the final stages of rehab from an ACL injury, former Vol and Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry.
After going through one-on-one work against Hunter, Berry told Knoxville media that Hunter hadn't just recovered from his injury, but termed the rising junior "NFL-ready."
As a freshman, Hunter competed for the Volunteer track and field squad in the high jump, long jump and triple jump, earning indoor All-American honors in the long jump. Without the injury, Hunter would have returned to the track for the 2012 season, with the possibility of a berth in this summer's London Olympics well within his grasp.
Hunter said looking at the qualifying marks from the Olympic trials, those marks might have been within his reach, but the opportunity still may not have been in his future.
"I know if I had worked on it and gotten to the Olympics, I would have missed a couple of games and that wouldn't have been best for the team," he said.
Coming back from injury, Hunter's thoughts were almost exclusively on the game, not the Games.
"When I got hurt, all I was thinking about was football," Hunter said. "Track didn't even enter my mind, it was all football."
And now, with the season underway, Hunter's mind and focus is back on the football field. The long road back from his injury has changed his mentality, but also has him looking forward to being back out with his teammates.
"It's been a real eye-opener," he said of the injury and recovery. "To get back on the field with my teammates, it's going to be great. I'm out here with my friends again, having a lot of fun."
Tennessee wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw has been impressed with the progress Hunter has made returning to the field.
"Justin is 100 percent," Hinshaw said at the conclusion of fall camp. "He's working his tail off, he's hungry. He's going out there and he's got a great attitude. He hits the practice field running and he reminds me of the old Justin Hunter."
Hinshaw also said he sees something that will frighten opposing defensive coordinators all season long: He's still getting better.
"The thing with Justin is it's a continual improvement," Hinshaw said. "When you're playing the game of football at the speed he plays at, it's a little different than working out and all that stuff that he's been doing all summer. Now it's playing the game of football, and getting into that. You've got to get tired because you're going to play tired in the game. Pads on, helmet on, all those kinds of things that we've worked through we have to continue to get better."
Hunter also has a new fan backing him in the stands. His son Braylon was born on June 19, and Hunter says the responsibility of being a father has added to his maturity and given him another level of drive on the field.
"Fatherhood is great," he said. "I have a little bit more to play for. He's going to be at all of the games, I'll be looking at him from the sideline, playing for him."
The junior Hunter will hopefully have a matching number 11 jersey in time for the season.
"We ordered one, but it hasn't come in yet," Hunter said. "We're working on it."
The past year has been a challenge for Hunter as he went from the high of his performance against Cincinnati, to the low of that moment on the turf in Gainesville.
The low of missing out on the chance to represent his country in London, to the high of seeing his son enter the world.
Through it all, Hunter says he has very specific goals for himself this season. And the result of achieving those goals will produce great results for Tennessee on the field.
"I just want to come out here and finish a season," Hunter said. "Stay healthy, be out here and contribute to the offense. If I can just pay my role and do what I need to do, I think we can be great."
Check out this story and more like it in the new and improved Tennessee football gameday program, which will feature new content every week this season.