GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Tennessee knew it would be swamped in adversity in its SEC opener at Florida, and the Volunteers’ offense was knee deep in uncertainty on its first drive.
Dynamic sophomore receiver Justin Hunter went up and came down with a 12-yard reception. It looked harmless. No contact.
But then you saw the replay and the awkward landing with the left leg, and the pained grimace. Some 31â„2 hours later, Tennessee’s 33-23 loss paled in comparison.
The 6-foot-4 Hunter piled up a season’s worth of stats for a lot of players in two games (16 catches, 302 yards, two touchdowns), and suddenly that might be what they are.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley doesn’t know the long-term prognosis for the long-armed leaper from Virginia Beach, Va., but he isn’t expecting good news.
Tennessee’s offense will struggle to adjust on the fly. Quarterback Tyler Bray was suddenly without his hot read and, not so suddenly, without a running game against the Gators’ fast defense.
“I mean it’s tough losing one of your go-to guys as a quarterback, but we still have a whole three quarters to come back and make plays, which we failed to do,” Bray said.
Florida began keying on another sophomore, Da’Rick Rogers, which was hardly a surprise.
“When I saw Justin go down, I went straight to Da’Rick and told him it’s his time, uh, to step up and be that big leader right now, because he’s basically the main threat right now on offense,” UT defensive back Prentiss Waggner said.
Consequently, the Vols were in a fog for much of the first half.
“The offense probably got on their heels a little bit, because that’s something they probably didn’t expect,” Waggner said. “It probably shocked the young guys a little bit.”
Hunter is best known for getting open deep. But his value against Florida’s speed would’ve been getting open quickly — or going up and making a play when he was not necessarily open.
“It’s tough at times,” Bray said. “There’s plays when you’d normally look to that side that you kind of have to — he’s not in there to make that play.”
Bray didn’t want to blame the Volunteers’ loss on the loss of Hunter. He did pass for 288 yards and three TDs. But there were several drops that would’ve moved the chains, and times he had to throw balls away when no separation was created in the secondary despite pretty good pass protection.
“I mean we lost; you can’t really say,” Bray said. “There’s always what-ifs. What if I don’t throw two picks?”
The future is now for Tennessee freshman DeAnthony Arnett. He had a game-high eight catches for 59 yards.
“He’s gonna have to play a lot now. … He’s gonna have to grow up,” Dooley said. “Vincent Dallas is gonna have to grow up.”
CBS color commentator Gary Danielson compared Tennessee losing Hunter to Florida losing Percy Harvin several years ago.
Unfortunately for the Volunteers, they don’t have the complementary weapons to absorb the expected hit with the same success.
Trey Williams is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.