Justin Hunter's childhood dream of becoming a professional athlete is over.
Fortunately for fans of Tennessee football, Hunter's dream as a kid was to play in the NBA. When Coach Derek Dooley approached the multi-talented sports star at his home in Virginia Beach in 2009, Hunter chose the University of Tennessee and football instead of basketball.
So far his career at UT has been defined by his potential. Now, on the road back from a season-ending knee injury in 2011, and with his partner Da'Rick Rogers recently dismissed from the team, Hunter will carry the burden of heavy expectations for a Vol team that many expect has to improve significantly if Dooley wants to keep his job.
Upon arriving in Knoxville, Hunter was assigned jersey no. 11. Some Tennessee fans were already wearing that number on replica jerseys and T-shirts—it had belonged to the much-hyped Lane Kiffin recruit Bryce Brown, a running back who transferred after his freshman season and who seemed to represent the worst of the chaotic Kiffin era.
As a tall, skinny freshman, Hunter caught only 16 passes, but seven of them were for touchdowns, putting him in a tie for most touchdowns among FBS freshmen and landing him on the All-SEC freshman team.
Hunter, along with freshman quarterback Tyler Bray and freshman wide receiver Rogers, helped the Tennessee fan base regain some of the optimism lost during the darkness that followed the dismissal of Hall of Fame coach Phillip Fulmer and the endlessly publicized Lane Kiffin debacle.
The Rogers/Hunter tandem at receiver seemed impossible to stop. And for a moment, that was a reality.
The 2011 season began with historical significance, as Hunter and Rogers became only the second receiver duo in UT with 100 yards each in back-to-back games. With a suspect running game, the Tennessee offense was succeeding with the passing game, heading confidently onto the field for their first series against rival Florida.
Hunter easily shook his defender on a short route and hopped into the air to snag a pass from Bray. He turned to head up field. Suddenly, he collapsed, untouched, and the air rushed out of Tennessee fans everywhere. A torn anterior cruciate ligament meant the end of Hunter's highly anticipated sophomore season.
Rogers, who recently transferred to Tennessee Tech (due an inability to pass drug tests), would go on to have an incredible individual performance in the 2011-12 season, leading the Vols in all-purpose yards, finishing second among SEC receivers and being named to the All-SEC first team. Without Hunter, he was Bray's only target, giving him the statistical spoils of Hunter's injury.
The team's offense, though, was consistently victimized by the lack of a running game. The season ended in turmoil and frustration—and Dooley's second losing season in two years as head coach. Hunter was forced to sit by and watch, for the first time in his career.
"I didn't show it around my teammates, but I got real down," Hunter recalled during media day at Neyland Stadium on Aug. 18. To help combat the frustration of the injury, Hunter's teammates would forgo outings to stay in with the injured receiver, especially his best friend and roommate, running back Rajion Neal.
With a work ethic that Vols strength and conditioning coach Ron McKeefery calls "phenomenal," Hunter has not only rehabilitated his knee, but he also has increased his upper-body strength. McKeefery expects to see little or no drop-off in Hunter's speed or vertical jumping ability during the 2012 season.
"Justin is a wonderful kid," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney says. "When you're coming back from an ACL, your character is completely tested, and he's done a wonderful job overcoming that. He loves the game and is such a good, fun-loving kid to coach."
When asked to describe Hunter, more than one teammate used the word "goofy." And Hunter agrees, describing himself as a "big kid," obsessed with candy and cartoons. Scooby-Doo has been a favorite character since childhood.
All that is a far cry from Tennessee's reputation in recent history, which includes a litany of player arrests, including the departed Rogers' participation in a bar brawl during his freshman year. The website EDSBS.com even distributes an annual "Fulmer Cup" to the school with the worst criminal record.
The only trouble Hunter has given anyone has been his opponents.
And so the 2012 season arrives, with "goofy" and "phenomenal" No. 11 finally joining his fellow juniors—Bray and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, a junior-college transfer who scored two touchdowns in UT's opening win over North Carolina State in the Chick-fil-A Kick Off Game in Atlanta—in what is poised to be one of the most vicious passing attacks in the SEC.
And that passing attack is part of a bigger storyline for the season: Dooley's job security.
After two losing seasons, a heartbreaking loss to Kentucky and no bowl bid in 2011, Dooley has come under intense fan and media scrutiny. He could be in danger of losing his job if this season isn't a big step forward.
In college football, especially at a school with as emotional a fan base as Tennessee's, all fans care about is wins, and they want them yesterday. And when you're talking about a team that, according to Forbes, is worth $82 million and posted a profit in 2011 of $38 million (a 6 percent growth, despite huge overall losses in the UT athletic deptartment), you can understand why some people are so demanding about the team's success.
Dooley has recruited well, reduced off-field player trouble, and cleaned up most of the mess he inherited. Now he can only wait and see whether 2012's Vols will help him out.
"We're about to go out there and give people a reason to say nice things about him," Hunter says.