Titan's rookie Justin Hunter catches guff like a pro

8:48 AM, Aug 6, 2013   |    comments
Titans receivers coach Shawn Jefferson instructs rookie Justin Hunter at practice Friday. / George Walker IV / THE TENNESSEAN
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By Jim Wyatt, The Tennessean

Justin Hunter didn't mind the questions about his health. As he worked his way back from a torn ACL at the University of Tennessee, he figured it came with the territory.

And as he watched tape of himself upon his return last season, even he admits he didn't look exactly right.

One thing he despises: questions about his toughness.

Yet before he's even played a single NFL game, it's arguably the most popular topic swirling around the team's second-round pick.

"It makes me mad because I am not soft,'' Hunter said. "Hearing that, it makes me want to go harder to prove people wrong."

Anyone who's attended Titans training camp has certainly noticed Hunter. He's tall and lanky, and at least once a session he'll go up and snatch a ball out of the air like Randy Moss in his prime.

Maybe the best way to find Hunter, however, is by watching - or listening to - receivers coach Shawn Jefferson. He's regularly in the rookie's face screaming, correcting him for a blunder, or hammering home a point about needing to play with more of an attitude.

"He tells me, 'Don't play soft.' He tells me every day, 'Justin don't be scared,' " Hunter said. "He'll see something he doesn't like and he'll correct me at film. Coming into the NFL, it is a big boy's game, it is a man's game. I know I have something to prove from the jump."

If Hunter is shell-shocked, he shouldn't be.

After catching 106 passes for 1,812 yards and 18 touchdowns in three seasons with the Vols - he missed most of his sophomore season with a knee injury, and didn't play his senior season - he met Jefferson at the NFL Combine in February. Jefferson told him then he was going to be hard on him if the Titans picked him, so he'd better be prepared.

Then the Titans moved up in the draft and selected Hunter early in the second round.

Hunter missed most of the offseason workouts, and Jefferson, a longtime NFL receiver himself, in June publicly questioned his desire to push through the injury. The emotional Jefferson hasn't been made available to reporters since then, but his feelings about Hunter have been written all over his face every practice.

Even Hunter's teammates are staying on him.

"At 6-4, 6-5, he is a little light on his (butt), but we have been working on him and getting him tougher in camp,'' receiver Kenny Britt said. "Every time we see something that may be soft, we talk to him about it.

"Sometimes, instead of getting upfield after catching a ball, he does too many juke moves and goes to the ground, but that is something we can change. And that is what we are working on him."

Defenders have marveled at his athletic ability - comparing him to Bengals receiver A.J. Green.

But they've also been riding him hard. It's for good reason, they say.

"I think he is going to be something special,'' safety Bernard Pollard said. "Now is he a guy who is going to go block or dig somebody out? No, that's not who he is. We can sit here and talk all day and want him to go bang heads with people, but that is not who he is and that is not what he does. His job is to get the ball and make plays.

"I don't question his fight. But he has to be able to take the abuse. He is going to get hit. Now, what are you going to do when that happens? We'll find out."

On a team with a deep receiving corps, the Titans don't necessarily need Hunter to make a huge impact early, although it would be a nice bonus.

With Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, Damian Williams and Britt, the Titans already have four proven receivers, not to mention veteran Kevin Walter (currently on the physically unable to perform list) and lesser-known receiver Michael Preston, who continues to impress in training camp.

Titans offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said he's been encouraged with Hunter, although that was before the rookie dropped two more passes in Saturday's scrimmage at LP Field.

Hunter, who added roughly 10 pounds to his frame prior to training camp, said he wants to make a big impact as a rookie. Already, he's learned thick skin is needed in the NFL, especially around Jefferson.

"I just think you have to be able to listen to what he is saying,'' Hunter said with a smile, "and not hear how he is saying it."

Jefferson's latest message to Hunter could be overheard on the practice field last week: You're not at the University of Tennessee any more.

Hunter's response on the field will be worth watching this fall. He'll play in his first preseason game Thursday against the Redskins at LP Field.

"This is not the same as college any more. You are not going to be playing against guys who you are just better than physically and stronger than,'' Washington said. "You have to be mentally tough. And when someone tests your mental strength, you have to step up to the plate. I think Justin is preparing himself to do that."

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