published Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Tennessee Vols' Justin Hunter excited by return to practice

Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press 
Wide receiver Justin Hunter, No. 87, poses for photographers during the University of Tennessee Vols Media Day at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.
Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press Wide receiver Justin Hunter, No. 87, poses for photographers during the University of Tennessee Vols Media Day at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

KNOXVILLE -- One route was all Justin Hunter needed to feel a brief moment of nostalgia.

The junior-to-be Tennessee receiver took off on a deep pattern early during the Volunteers' first spring practice Monday morning, and the memories of where he was before a devastating knee injury certainly flashed in his head.

Making it through today, though, will be the trick for Hunter and UT.

"It was good in the beginning," Hunter said after his first practice since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in the Vols' loss at Florida last September. "Toward the end of practice I felt a little soreness, but by that time it was straight.

"I'm pretty excited because the first day it wasn't that bad, but I know tomorrow's going to be a different day. I was running on it a lot today."

One advantage Hunter will have as he tries to maximize a limited spring is the daily rehabilitation he's already endured. More than six months removed from the injury, he is ahead of schedule in making a full recovery.

Monday was evidence of that, as the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder was making cuts, running routes and catching passes sooner than expected, though he certainly isn't 100 percent.

"He went through the whole practice, but it's not where he can go full speed and then we back him down," coach Derek Dooley said. "He's kind of at the same pace throughout practice, and it's hard for him when he's getting pressed and those [defensive] guys are full speed. But he did: He went through the whole practice, he ran a lot of routes and now I think we just have to see how his knee responds from today.

"He probably did a little more than we had anticipated back in February. They're moving along -- both him and [linebacker] Brent [Brewer] are moving at a pretty good pace -- and we've got to be smart about how we manage them."

Hunter followed a seven-touchdown freshman season with an explosive start to last season. He caught 16 passes for 302 yards and two scores in UT's first two games before going down on a 12-yard catch in the loss to the Gators, so the Vols know what they have with him.

UT might be best served by playing it extra safe with Hunter, but he had other ideas Monday.

"The training room, I know they didn't want me to do a lot of stuff today," he said. "But I felt good. I told them to just let me do it."

As happy as Hunter was, his teammates might have been even happier to see No. 11 back on the field, even if he was in a red noncontact jersey. He is one of the most well-liked players on the team, and even quarterback Tyler Bray noted how having Hunter's "character" back on the practice field provided a boost.

Hunter admitted he used his right leg to cut on some slant routes during one-on-one drills. The key, he said, is not thinking about the injury or hesitating to use his left knee. The Vols expect him to back to 100 percent when summer workouts begin in June.

"I hate sitting on the sidelines because it's so boring," he said. "You want to help your team, but you can't help your team. When you're on the field, you can do that.

"It was fun because I was real eager to go out there and do one-on-ones, because I've been talking all offseason about what I'm going to do. I went out there and caught a couple of balls on some people, and I was real excited."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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