Tennessee’s Big Game Hunter

Clad in bright orange, many around the South will head out into the woods this fall in search of big game, such as deer, bears and wild boars.  But for Justin Hunter of Tennessee, big game takes in 2011 will not be tallied in pelts or mounts, but rather in the form of touchdowns and wins for the orange and white as the Volunteers try to bag victories over Grizzlies, Bearcats, Gators, Tigers, Wildcats and yes, even elephants.

The lanky 6’4″ 185 pound receiver arrived in Knoxville as a member of Head Coach Derek Dooley’s signing class of 2010, rated as the nation’s number 26 overall prospect and the number five receiver in his class by ESPN. In just one short season, Hunter has been making believers of any who doubted his remarkable talent by backing up the hype with spectacular play on the gridiron.

The true-freshman first found pay dirt in the Vol’s 31-17 loss at Florida on a 35-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Matt Simms and finished the afternoon with three receptions for 60 yards.  Three weeks later, Hunter had a break-out game in a losing effort at Georgia, hauling in a season-high four catches for 110 yards and his second touchdown.  It was a sign of great things to come, but it wasn’t until fellow-freshman Tyler Bray was named the starting quarterback for the Memphis game did Hunter really begin to make the most of his extraordinary athletic skills.

The talented freshman duo connected for six pass completions in the next five games and amazingly, five went for Tennessee touchdowns.  The chemistry between the two youngsters was unmistakable as their combined efforts helped lead the team to four consecutive victories and a birth in the Music City Bowl.  Bray, the California gunslinger, was never afraid to throw into coverage to the phenomenal Hunter and the touchdowns began to pile up.

The Virginia Beach native finished out his freshman campaign with a modest 16 receptions, but that’s where the modesty ends, as Hunter’s 16 receptions accounted for a staggering 415 yards and seven touchdowns, sixth best in the SEC.  No one in the conference, with at least ten receptions, even came close to Hunter’s gaudy 25.9 yard-per-catch average.  Perhaps, even more startling is the fact that Hunter caught seven touchdown passes out of just 16 receptions on the season.

Expressed as a percentage, Hunter’s touchdown-per-reception percentage is an astonishing 43.8 percent.  The math is simple, touchdowns divided by receptions equals TD/R %.  How does Hunter stack up against the SEC’s leading touchdown receivers using this novel statistic?  Take a look at the chart below.

Denarius MooreUT47919.1%
A.J. GreenGA57915.8%
Alshon JefferySC88910.2%
Chris MatthewsKY61914.8%
Emory BlakeAU33824.2%
Justin HunterUT16743.8%

To put his freshman numbers into perspective, had Hunter achieved just the average amount of receptions as the SEC’s touchdown receiving leaders ahead of him, “statistically speaking,” his stats begin to resemble, well, no body’s in the history of the conference.  Would it really be possible to score 25 touchdowns on just 57 receptions?  Of course it’s possible, but not very realistic, especially since the SEC single-season reception record for touchdowns is 18, now that might be something to shoot for.  Or what about the Tennessee all-time record for touchdown receptions of 25 held by Peyton Manning’s favorite target, Joey Kent?  I could definitely see that one being in trouble before Hunter is through at Tennessee.

Since the end of the football season, Hunter has been breaking records and staying in shape by competing in the long jump as a member of the UT track team.  The two-sport star performer will compete this weekend in the NCAA Championships, hosted by Texas A&M in College Station, TX.  Hunter qualified for the event in January and has since established a career-best jump of 26′ 1 1/2″ and currently holds the Tennessee freshman record in his featured event.

At the conclusion of the NCAA Championships, Hunter will once again return his focus to snatching passes from the air from big game hunting buddy, Tyler Bray, with spring practice set to begin in just a couple of weeks on March 22nd.  Spring practice will wind down on April 16th in the annual Orange and White game.

Hunting season opens in just 178 days for the Vols on September 3rd when the Montana Grizzlies make their way to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.  With a healthy Bray and Hunter, locked and loaded for the upcoming season, Derek Dooley’s orange-cladded Volunteers should once again be in the hunt for the big game that has narrowly eluded and escaped them in the recent past.  Get ready SEC, Justin Hunter is Tennessee’s big game hunter.