KNOXVILLE—Don’t accuse Justin Hunter of not reaching for the stars.
Don’t be surprised when the Tennessee football and track star leaps over them, either.
“I probably could do the Olympics and the NFL,” Hunter said earlier this week. “If I can do that, I would rather do that than just pick one.”
Hunter has made splashes in two sports in his first year on UT’s campus. The lanky 6-foot-5 athlete became a dangerous deep threat on the football field, catching a school freshman-record seven touchdown passes and averaging nearly 32 yards per reception.
In his first collegiate track meet, Hunter cleared 26 feet, 1 inch in the long jump to qualify for the NCAA Indoor Championships at Texas A&M, where he’ll compete tonight.
“When I popped that 26, that surprised me the most,” said Hunter, who’s ranked seventh nationally in the long jump. “I want to make top eight if I don’t win. I want to break the [indoor] school record [of 26 feet, 5 inches].”
Hunter’s track career began in eighth grade and continued at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, Va.
“One of my best friends got me on to it,” he said. “He said it would be it would be a good idea for me and him to run against each other because we went to different schools, so I was like, ‘I’ll try this out.’ At the beginning, in long jump I wasn’t really good because I didn’t know what I was doing. My first mark I ever jumped was 15-7.”
Two years later, Hunter was jumping 25 feet as a sophomore. He swept the long, high and triple jump events in Virginia’s largest classification as a senior and won the long jump at the USA junior nationals last June and finished sixth in the IAAF junior worlds in July.
Being able to continue his track career was an important part of Hunter’s recruitment as a four-star football prospect. He met J.J. Clark, UT’s director of track and field, during his official visit under former football coach Lane Kiffin. UT’s embracing of Hunter’s track career led him to pick the Volunteers over LSU, where he had committed in May of his junior year.
“[Track] was something else I could do and something else I love,” he said. “If I could pursue one of my dreams, I’d be good with that. Tennessee, they were more hands-on. They wanted to talk to me every time, every chance they could get. LSU really didn’t communicate as much [UT] did. They wanted me that bad, so I thought this would be a good place.”
UT’s football coaching staff has followed through on their pledge to Hunter, helping him develop a schedule that allows him to devote practice time to both this semester.
Hunter has added seven pounds of muscle under new football strength coach Ron McKeefery, and that extra strength has helped his explosion as a jumper. After tonight’s competition, he’ll focus completely on football for spring practice before picking track back up for the outdoor season in April.
“We came up with schedule of me focusing more on football in spring ball because that’s what I’m here for, and I’ll be doing track in between my schedules,” Hunter said. “They kept their word when they came to my house and recruited me.
“I have to do everything the football team does and [track]. I just want to get bigger and be able to run my routes better. I’m almost at 190, so that was my targeted goal this offseason. I’m close to that, and if I can get bigger I want to get bigger.”
Bouncing around campus from early-morning football workouts to 15 hours of class to track and back to football is certainly taxing, but Hunter, who also played basketball in high school, relishes the heavy workload.
He considers it necessary for him to achieve what he wants to accomplish, whether it’s earning an endorsement deal and competing the 2012 Summer Olympics as a long jumper or following in the footsteps of fellow Virginia Beach receivers Plaxico Burress and Percy Harvin as first-round NFL draft picks.
“If I can get a deal, a contract, that’s one of my biggest goals right there,” Hunter said. “If Nike gives me a call, I’d like that. It can be anybody. As long I got a deal I know I accomplished something. I’m trying to go first-round. I want to be able to go to the NFL and be another one of those great Virginia football players that [can] say they made it.”
Hunter knows reaching that elite level in both sports is a tall task. He’s set a tentative timetable of the end of next spring as to when he’ll make his choice about his future.
“That’s going to have to be a priority of mine I’ve got to think about,” he said. “I want to go toward the one that I feel like will fit me the best.”
He probably can’t go wrong with either.
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 ...