Sept. 20, 2011
KNOXVILLE - Tennessee was defeated for the first time this season Saturday at Florida, but its biggest loss came on the Vols' third offensive play when sophomore wide receiver Justin Hunter suffered a torn ACL in his left knee that will keep him out for the remainder of 2011.
Hunter, who entered the game with the sixth-most receiving yards in the nation, will be difficult to replace. The Vols, however, have capable options that will all have to elevate their play in Hunter's absence.
"It was a little bit different," sophomore Da'Rick Rogers said of Hunter not being present. "Everyone has to step up. Today, everyone realized how much different it is going to be with a different make up of the team. Guys have to step up."
Sophomore wide receiver Matt Milton recorded his first career catch in the fourth quarter against the Gators and is taking the opportunity in stride.
"The mindset is just to come out and play football and perform," Milton said. "Justin (Hunter) isn't coming back, we all know that. Somebody has to step up, we can't be a two-receiver team. I feel like it's a good opportunity to show what I can do in a game, other than just in practice. It gives me more motivation for practice, to play harder and to get better."
While Milton is getting more of an opportunity on the field, Rogers is looking to take advantage of the chance to become more of a leader.
"I just have to work that much harder, to beat off double teams and those types of things," Rogers said. "From a maturity stand point - I can't worry about Justin's injury and I have to put it behind me and work hard. So everyone knows that if I am out there working hard that's what they have to do."
Junior wide receiver Zach Rogers worked in the offseason to be the primary slot receiver, he's ready for an expanded role also.
"I've worked more inside over the summer because that is what I wanted to play, but since everything has changed I could play outside or inside," he said. "I know the playbook so I will be ready to roll."
The process of moving forward is aided by having a confident leader in the huddle.
"It was kind of weird for me because I felt like I was going to be nervous, but once you are in there and with how (Tyler) Bray is, how do you get nervous around that guy?" Milton said. "It was really good to get in there. I felt more comfortable and now I feel that when I get back in I will be a lot more calm and feel better in there."
The team can feel better seeing Hunter display his usual laid back, playful attitude.
"It helps a lot," D. Rogers said. "From the visual standpoint - it helps the team to be able to look at him smiling. It gives them a little more positive hope to come out and work hard and not worry too much about his injury.
Tennessee is in the midst of its lone bye week of the season. Following an open date Sept. 24, the Vols will return to action against Buffalo the following Saturday, Oct. 1. Rest is not UT's primary objective, however.
"I'm glad we've got the open week," sophomore offensive lineman Ja'Wuan James said. "Usually people think the open week is a time to relax. For myself, I know I've got to get better technique. Everybody has something they need to work on to get better."
Coming off their first loss of the season, the Vols wish they had a sooner shot at redemption.
"Personally, I wish we had a game this week and I'm sure most of the other guys would agree with me on that," junior defensive back Marsalis Teague said. "We're going to embrace this week off and not really think of it as a week off. We've still got to put in the work and prepare like we've got a game. That's the only way we're going to get better."
If they aren't getting better, it won't mean much for the Vols.
"It's good (to have the week off), but if you don't use it to your advantage it is useless," junior offensive lineman Dallas Thomas said.
It's the one week of the season where it's OK to be a little selfish.
"It's a super important week," sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith said. "It's a week where you can sit down, where you know you don't have an opponent coming up, and you can focus on yourselves."
DARR TABBED FULL-TIME PUNTER
One positive to come out of Saturday's loss at Florida was the solid performance put forth by freshman punter Matt Darr. The Bakersfield, Calif., native was named the team's full-time punter after averaging 44.0 yards on three punts, including a 52-yard bomb, the team's longest punt of the year.
"I've been trying to take ownership of the position and now that I've had a good game under my belt, I feel confident," Darr said. "I'm just ready to get rolling with the season and carry that forward."
Making Darr's effort even more impressive was the fact that it came on the road against a rival school that had already blocked one punt earlier in the game.
"I was a little nervous going out there for the first time at Florida in a hostile environment, but I felt that I got pretty comfortable after that," Darr said. "I hit off two good punts, unfortunately we let one of them get into the end zone for a touchback, but that is going to happen."
One piece of technique the coaching staff has worked on with Darr is shortening his stride in order to get his kicks off faster. The results were better on Saturday, but there is still improvement to be made.
"It just comes with practice over time," Darr said. "My `off' times were really good on Saturday, so I just need to stay confident in what I am doing. It's working out now, so we'll just keep that up."