Justin Hunter and Derek Dooley are on the same page: both of them want Hunter to shed the omnipresent crutches that have been his mode of transportation since Tennessee's sophomore wideout ripped the ACL in his left leg at Florida in mid-September.
But only Hunter has to rely on the crutches to traverse the hills of Rocky Top.
"I hate em, I've got to walk to classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays up the Hill," Hunter said Tuesday in his first comments since the injury and subsequent surgery. "I try to get rides, call the 'T' as much as I can. Sometimes they're always late so I've got to walk anyway."
Added Dooley, "I think he's doing well. I'm ready for him to get off the crutches. That will make me feel better when he's walking around, but every indication I'm getting is he's recovering well, he's staying around the team, he brings good energy around the guys. That's important."
Though he appeared only in the Vols' first three games and didn't last through the opening series at Florida, Hunter has remained Tennessee's second-leading wideout with 314 receiving yards. The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder has seen steady progress in his rehabilitation process after initially fearing the worst.
"It didn't hurt. The pain wasn't really bad. I just thought my life was over because it was a knee injury and I'd never had one before. So I was pretty scared," Hunter said. "It kind of stung a little bit, but it wasn't any major pain. It was something just different, like I'd dislocated something."
Hunter has since consulted with former Vol Eric Berry, who tore an ACL in the Kansas City Chiefs' season opener in September, and other coaches. Always wearing a smile, Hunter no longer is worried about the long-term effects of the injury.
"I really think I'll be coming back better than I was before," said Hunter. "They really say that my leg will be stronger than it's ever been, so I'm just trying to push to get better."
Dooley has encouraged both Hunter and quarterback Tyler Bray, who broke his thumb against Georgia and has since undergone surgery, to remain as involved with the team as possible.
"They don't want me too distant from the team," Hunter said. "So I'm there in meetings, traveling, I'm in V.F.L. every time and chance I get."
Dooley said it's important to keep both players progressing from a mental standpoint.
"He and Tyler both. We're doing a lot with both of them. What they can do to improve as players while they're hurting, whether it's in the weight room or whether it's film study and mental reps," Dooley said. "They're doing a good job of bringing their energy to the other guys on the team."
Meanwhile, Hunter is still finding ways to occupy his time --- especially when standing on the sidelines has become so painful during Tennessee's four-game losing skid.
"I try to find other things to do, just try to play the game. If I can't play the game, I play the X-box by myself sometimes just to try to get my stats up," Hunter joked. "... It's real hard, just sitting on the sidelines and watching. Sometimes I don't even want to go to the games because I know if I can't help them, it's not my way to do it. I just try to lift them up as best I can and help them out."
Hunter recently has begun to gain greater extension in his leg, making full revolutions on the bike in rehab. The Virginia Beach, Va., native also said UT's staff is trying to help him pack some extra weight on his frame before his targeted return of spring practice.
"I get up, they're making me eat every morning. Taking me breakfast, trying to get me to gain weight," Hunter said. "I go to meetings at 8, after that I'm in training, rehab, for like an hour-and-30 minutes at the most. After that, I go lift weights and try to go to class.
"Stretching, knee-hab, getting my quad to contract most of the time. Eating and sleeping, too, from coach Baggett. It's just basically getting my mobility back, trying to get straight and everything."
MALIK RISES UP
Tennessee defensive tackle Malik Jackson didn't exactly light it up over the first four games of the season. The senior recorded just 14 tackles through the first four games, but stepped up his production over the last four.
Jackson's recorded 27 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks over the last four games against Tennessee's best competition. But, even before the ramped up production Jackson said he's been pleased with what he's done.
"I was happy with my production because we worked on the run real hard this season, so I was happy I got kind of stout in the run," Jackson said. "I was disappointed in the pass (rush). I just have to realize during the season to let it go. You can't think about getting sacks. You've just got to come out there and work and they'll come to you. That's what happened at the Alabama game. Now they've been flowing."
Jackson's sack against the Gamecocks came from the end position where he's been working more in pass-rushing situations.
"Coach (Lance) Thompson just decided to put me on the due a little bit more, just to get some fast rushers off the edge. I've been out here practicing with Dallas (Thomas) and Ja'Wuan (James), and it's been working pretty good in the games," Jackson said.
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