A little over five months after tearing the ACL in his left knee, Justin Hunter returned to the football field.
Although the atmosphere at Tennessee’s practice field on Monday was much different than the one at Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Sept. 17, 2011, the wide receiver’s return brought excitement to the Volunteers, a team that finished the 2011 season with a disappointing 5-7 record.
“It felt good,” Hunter said. “I didn’t feel a lot of pain when I was out there. Overall, I had a good day today. I felt like I did real good on my routes and everything else.”
Hunter will be in a red, non-contact jersey for all of UT’s 15 spring practices, but he’ll still go through individual drills and limited team drills.
“It’s not where he can go full speed, and then we back him down,” UT coach Derek Dooley said. “He’s kind of at the same pace throughout practice. It’s hard for him when he’s getting pressed and those guys are full speed.”
Dooley admitted the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Hunter is a little bit ahead in his rehab, but given the important role he’ll play in the Vols’ offense this fall, coaches and the training staff don’t want to risk re-aggravating the injury.
“He is right on track and hopefully he will get some good work in this spring without having a setback,” Dooley said.
For Hunter, sitting out UT’s final nine games last season took its toll, especially after the promise the Vols showed when Hunter was healthy.
“I hate sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “It’s so boring. You want to help your team, but you can’t help your team. Being on the field, you can do that.”
Through the Vols’ first two games last season, Hunter led the SEC in catches (16) and receiving yards (302). He had also hauled in two touchdown passes. Against the Gators, Hunter suffered the season-ending injury on UT’s opening possession after hauling in a 12-yard pass from quarterback Tyler Bray.
 Now that he’s back on the field, Hunter tries not to relive the injury.
“I think the biggest thing is I can’t think about it,” he said. “If I think about it, I’m going to re-injure it somehow. I just try to go out there, not think about it and make the best of it.”
After surgery, Hunter’s off-season consisted of a daily rehab program, but finally getting back on the field has been a blessing.
“It’s gotten easier,” Hunter said. “When I first hurt it, it was really painful and everything like that. We’re going through it real nice and smooth now.”
Bray, who missed five games last season with a broken throwing hand himself, was also pleased with Hunter’s return.
“Finally getting his character out there kind of helped the team,” Bray said Monday.
But even with all the accolades and potential Hunter has on the field, he’s one of the team’s most likable players.
 “Justin is one of the greatest teammates I’ve ever been around,” senior wide receiver Zach Rogers said. “He’s selfless. He’s very humble. He comes out here and works, and obviously, he’s one of the best receivers in college football. It’s an honor to play alongside him.”