- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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There’s a reason Tennessee used to be known as Wide Receiver U.
The Vols cranked out explosive deep threats in the passing game the way the Hawaiian Islands did world-class surfers.
That pipeline to the NFL has slowed somewhat over the years, but it looks like it’s about to pick back up with the game-changing tandem of Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson making an early claim to being the two best receivers in the SEC.
“It’s like being a kid in a candy shop with two guys like that to throw to,” Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray said. “You drop back and know that nine times out of 10 the defense isn’t going to be able to cover them both.”
The Vols’ passing game was supposed to be a three-headed monster this season, but Da’Rick Rogers was dismissed from the team in August after failing multiple drug tests.
Rogers led the SEC with 67 catches last season and was second with 1,040 receiving yards.
But in Patterson, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior college transfer who’s been clocked at 10.3 in the 100 meters, the Vols have essentially replaced Rogers with somebody who’s just as big, just as sure-handed and even faster.
On his 67-yard reverse for a touchdown against North Carolina State in the opener, Patterson cut back across the field with his galloping strides and made everybody on defense look like they were running backward.
“From the first day I saw him in seven-on-sevens, I knew what we were getting,” Hunter said. “I just looked at our DBs and said ‘Good luck.’”
As dynamic as the Hunter-Patterson combo has looked the first two weeks, the real test comes Saturday against Florida. The Gators shut out Texas A&M in the second half last week on the road and aren’t shy about manning up against receivers and letting their front seven go get the quarterback.
The Vols’ reaction this week has been predictable: Bring it on.
“I’ve always been taught that if somebody plays you man-on-man, you’ve got to go out there and beat them,” Hunter said. “So your eyes have to light up when you get that kind of coverage.”
Patterson also expects to see Florida cornerbacks pressing him, although he’s not sure that’s a very good idea.
“If they key in on me, they’re going to leave Justin open,” Patterson said. “I don’t think they want to do that.
“This is what everybody is waiting for, the game everybody wants to play in. Either it’s going to expose you or let everybody know you’re ready for this.”
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Hunter has been counting down the days to Saturday’s game ever since going down with a torn ACL on the fourth play of the game last season against the Gators.
“I just wished I could have been there for my team,” Hunter said. “It seems like this game came the fastest, even faster than the first game this season. I’m ready, just ready to get out there and do what I didn’t have a chance to do last year.”
Patterson, who’s originally from Rock Hill, S.C., took a circuitous route to Tennessee. His last year of high school ball was the 2008 season, and he went to North Carolina Tech from there, although he didn’t play football during the 2009 season. He spent the next two seasons at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College and blossomed into one of the top junior college prospects in the country.
When he arrived on Tennessee’s campus this summer, the hype surrounding him was circus-like.
Even Patterson laughs about it now.
“Yeah, I heard it, but I didn’t pay any attention to it,” he said. “I knew I had to come in here and compete. I wasn’t going to let it go to my head.”
It didn’t take Patterson long to show that the hype was warranted. He scored twice from long distance in the opener against NC State and is averaging 18.2 yards per catch on nine receptions through the first two games.
Hunter caught three touchdown passes last week against Georgia State after being shut out in the opener. He has 17 catches in his first two games and looks like he’s shaken off any rust that might have been there from missing most of last season.
“I think it was just that I was anxious to get out there the first game and try to do too much and show people that I was back,” said Hunter, who has 12 touchdown catches in 18 career games. “The second game, I was more confident and more comfortable.”
The loss of Hunter so early in last season’s game was a huge downer for the Vols. Bray still finished with 288 passing yards and three touchdowns in the 33-23 loss, but ended up throwing it 48 times and was intercepted twice in the second half. The Vols finished with minus-9 rushing yards.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said it’s important that the Vols find some more balance than they did a year ago in Gainesville, but they’re not going to get away from what they do best.
“We’ve got to do a good job of mixing it up, but we’ve got to throw and catch pretty good, too,” Dooley said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to score points.”
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