KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's football program received good and bad news Monday from its pool of juniors considering jumps into the NFL draft.
As expected, receiver Justin Hunter appears headed to the professional league, but offensive linemen Ja'Wuan James and Zach Fulton decided to return for their senior seasons.
On his Twitter page Monday afternoon, Hunter simply wrote "declared," and the feeling inside the Volunteers program long has been that he wouldn't return for his senior season.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder from Virginia Beach, Va., showed his potential in 2010 when he broke a Tennessee freshman record with seven touchdown catches, but a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the Florida game derailed what could have been a monster sophomore season.
Hunter's comeback year brought mixed results, though he finished third in the SEC with 1,083 receiving yards. In the program's storied history of talented receivers, Hunter's 73 receptions left him three away from the single-season record set by Marcus Nash in 1997, and his yardage total ranks third behind Robert Meachem (1,298 in 2007) and Nash (1,170 in 1997). Hunter had 18 touchdown catches in 28 career games.
Yet this season he had some untimely drops against Florida and Mississippi State, and his lone touchdown in SEC play came in the season finale against Kentucky.
Hunter's speed, length and leaping ability are hard to ignore, however.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay ranks Hunter 22nd overall in his rankings of draft-eligible players, and fellow ESPN analyst Mel Kiper said last week that while Hunter "wasn't spectacular" this season and needed to add strength and weight to his skinny frame, his athleticism and ability to stretch the field make him an attractive option.
"Hunter's coming off that injury, so you've got to give him a little bit of a break here in terms of the way he's played," Kiper said last month. "I'm surprised he's even playing as well as he is, just because he's not that far removed from that injury. Hunter probably has a chance right now, if you look at him projecting, maybe more second round."
With the returns of James and Fulton, the Vols' offensive line looks to be a foundation for new coach Butch Jones' first team. They have started on the right side of Tennessee's line for all but nine games the past three seasons.
The 6-foot-6, 323-pound James has started all 37 games of his Tennessee career at right tackle, and Fulton, a 324-pound road grader, adds 28 career starts at right guard.
"Blessed to have another year to get better and another opportunity at winning a championship," James wrote on Twitter Monday morning. "I gotta take advantage of it."
The duo's status appeared up in the air after Jones elected to bring offensive line coach Don Mahoney with him from Cincinnati instead of retaining Sam Pittman, who greatly upgraded the Vols' front five this season. James was vocal after Derek Dooley's dismissal about his desire for Pittman to remain on staff, but Jones' spread offense, which features zone-blocking schemes, prompted a switch.
Loved by his Tennessee players, Pittman landed at Arkansas.
"I believe in what Coach Jones is preaching and what he's about," James told ESPN's Joe Schad.
Jones and Mahoney will have to replace senior Dallas Thomas, a projected second- or third-round pick who started every game at left guard this season after making 25 consecutive starts at left tackle.
Even with Thomas' departure, the Vols return 123 combined career starts among six linemen. Five of those players will be seniors, and junior-to-be left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson is talented enough that he could leave after next season.
Quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson are expected to join Hunter in declaring for the NFL draft, but neitherhas gone public with a decision.
Patrick going juco
Although he gave the hometown Vols a commitment nearly 11 months ago, Camion Patrick won't be at Tennessee next season.
Knoxville West High School coach Scott Cummings confirmed to the Times Free Press on Monday that the four-star receiver will enroll at East Mississippi Community College next month.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound prospect transferred to West from Lenoir City before his senior year, but he never was declared eligible to play. Cummings said the TSSAA never ruled on the hardship waiver West submitted for Patrick's eligibility. The missing piece to the waiver was a letter from Lenoir City stating Patrick's move was not for athletic reasons.
Ranked ninth in Tennessee and 39th among receivers, Patrick, who played at Clinton High School his freshman and sophomore years and totaled more than 1,000 yards of offense in 2011, held scholarship offers from Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss.
It's also unlikely that Zach Barnes, a three-star linebacker from Grayson High School in Logansville, Ga., who committed to former defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri in June, will sign with the Vols, leaving them with 15 current commitments in their 2013 class.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...