KNOXVILLE – It’s easy to see Justin Hunter’s NFL potential.
He’s 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, runs fast, jumps high and looks to be in the same mold of former Georgia receiver and current Cincinnati Bengals’ star A.J. Green.
The experts generally agree. Hunter is rated as the top wide receiver and the No. 11 overall draft-eligible NFL prospect by ESPN.com. He comes in at No. 20 overall and second at receiver in CBSSports.com’s rankings.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley isn’t as sold, yet.
“We all want to talk about how he is a first-round pick and the No. 1 pick in the draft and he can be that, but he has never performed to that standard in my opinion, and he knows that,” Dooley said. “He needs to focus on his development, on what does he do well, what are some things we can keep building on and how do we get there.”
Hunter’s numbers aren’t alarmingly bad this season, but they’ve fallen short of what some expected. He currently ranks fourth in the conference with 39 receptions for 567 yards. He is tied for third with four touchdown receptions. But his production has slowed considerably the last three games, all Tennessee losses. The junior has just nine receptions for 157 yards during that span.
Untimely drops have also been an issue. That was on full display when he dropped a catchable deep ball from quarterback Tyler Bray near the end of the first half against Alabama to cost the Vols a scoring opportunity.
“Everybody expects you to catch every pass, even the hard ones and the ones that go out of bounds,” Hunter said. “I think I’ve been doing everything mostly right on the field, but one drop is what everybody is going to look at.”
Catching the hard ones is exactly what Dooley would like to see more of from Hunter. His speed makes him a candidate to run past the defense on any play. But Dooley wants Hunter to also develop into the type of receiver who can make the tough catches in traffic – and hang on even after a tough hit.
“First of all, it has to be done in practice with a lot more consistency, and Justin has to understand that playing receiver is not always clean and easy,” Dooley said. “There is a little grit that you have to do to get open, you are going to have to get hit, and good receivers are able to make those kind of plays no matter what the circumstance. He’s not there yet.”
Experience pays off for Bullard, Jackson: Dooley has said all season he actually has seven starting offensive linemen – Tiny Richardson, Dallas Thomas, James Stone, Zach Fulton, Ja’Wuan James, Alex Bullard and Marcus Jackson.
With starting right guard Zach Fulton (ankle) probably out at South Carolina, either Bullard or Jackson will get a chance to be a true starter, not just one in name. Both are ready and thankful for the experience they’ve gotten already this season as key reserves.
“It’s very helpful,” Jackson said of his experience. “You go to some of the toughest environments of SEC teams and you play a big number of snaps, so now when your number is called, it’s like nothing happened and you’re ready for it.”
Added Bullard: “We’re ready. We’ve been playing; we just have to step it up this week. We’re going to be asked to play a little more.”
Maggitt still playing through pain: Pain will be a reality for linebacker Curt Maggitt the rest of the season. His turf toe, suffered against NC State in the season opener, won’t heal until he stays off of it for an extended period of time.
That’s not something Maggitt plans to do the rest of this season.
“I hadn’t really even thought about rest or sitting out of games,” said Maggitt. “I’m just trying to rehab it and get better. I just need to go and play. I feel like I’m not where I want to be, but I’m just doing the best I can do and giving my all while I’m out there.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.