NASHVILLE — The C.A.R.E. package for rookie wide receiver Justin Hunter arrived at the Tennessee Titans’ headquarters late last week.
“It was from Coach [Butch] Jones,” Hunter said, referring to the University of Tennessee’s new coach. “It was a box of T-shirts, college shirts, lots of UT stuff, lots of orange.”
But Hunter never so much as practiced under Jones, did he? Didn’t he decide to turn pro about the same time Jones was hired to replace Derek Dooley?
“He tried to get me to stay,” said Hunter on Saturday night, about an hour after he caught the first professional touchdown of his career in the Titans’ 27-16 exhibition victory over visiting Atlanta. “I think he was pretty bummed when I didn’t.”
Jones might be even more bummed after watching Hunter against the Falcons. Entering the Titans’ third preseason game of the year with two total catches for 14 yards, the 6-4, 203-pounder caught a 3-yard slant-in from backup QB Ryan Fitzpatrick midway through the third period to move the home team ahead 20-6.
“That’s an example of Justin growing and learning his role in the offense,” said starting quarterback Jake Locker. “Justin did a good job on his assignment, was able to find himself pretty open in the end zone.”
Hunter admitted there have been more than a few growing pains in going from UT’s top target to a Titans rookie reserve.
“I’m on a whole different road now,” he said. “At UT, I never cracked a safety coming down. [Coach] yells at me a lot. I feel like I’m a freshman in college. Or high school.”
Though the second-round draft choice is clearly happy he left college early, he still keeps up with the Vols’ progress, “Every chance I get. I’m always on the website, checking them out.”
That included checking out the new gray uniforms the Big Orange is expected to wear at least once this season.
“Yeah, I would have loved to wear that uniform,” Hunter said.
He probably wishes he’d had it to wear earlier in training camp, when he was forced to endure at least a small amount of rookie hazing.
“They threw my clothes in a cold tub one day,” Hunter said. “Fortunately, it didn’t hurt them and I didn’t have to go get them. That’s been about it, though. Not too bad so far.”
He’s still just a rookie receiver on a team that relies more on the run than the pass. Entering Saturday, five receivers had caught more balls in exhibition games than Hunter. Five more had caught as many. Four receivers caught more passes than Hunter against the Falcons.
But no one caught more touchdown passes against Atlanta than the former Vol, who intends to keep both the football and gloves from his scoring grab.
Said Hunter, a smile frozen on his face, “I’m just glad Coach believed in me enough to call my number.”
Email Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...