“Have you somewhat to do tomorrow, do it today.” –Benjamin Franklin
Obviously Franklin didn't have the 2011 Tennessee Volunteer football team in mind when he made this statement more than 250 years ago, but he couldn't have created a better adage for this team if he tried now.
On their third offensive play of Saturday's game with Florida, the Vols lost their best player, Justin Hunter, to a season ending ACL injury; a play that effectively destroyed any hopes Vol fans and players alike had of pulling the upset in The Swamp.
The buzz surrounding the Tennessee program as it headed to Gainesville was as high as it had been in a decade, but one play killed the buzz. In one fatal play, the optimism surrounding the game and the Vols' season was killed.
Saturday's trip to Gainesville had a chance to be the game that proved Tennessee football was back. It was the game that would prove the Vols had suffered through the head coaches, the losing seasons, the dismissals, the scandals, and come out on top; the way a program of such proud tradition should.
But it wasn't. Saturday was just another disappointment in a long line of disappointments.
But who's to say losing Hunter has to end the buzz and optimism? Why can't this still be the season that ends the disappointment? No one player makes a team, so why not prove all doubters wrong and prove Tennessee is back?
Justin Hunter is a world-class athlete. He is an All-American caliber receiver. He was the best player Tennessee had, but now he's not an option. This season is salvageable, and Hunter's load will be shouldered. Who shoulders the load? No one knows, but the options are available. Those options must see the opportunity to shine, grab it, and make Vol fans forget the name Justin Hunter—at least until next year.
One possible option made his presence known against the Gators. Freshman De'Anthony Arnett got the first crack at replacing Hunter's production, and he did a commendable job. Arnett made the first catches of his Vol career Saturday, finishing with eight catches for 59 yards.
Another possible replacement is junior Zach Rogers. Rogers is the most experienced of the receiving corp but also the most often injured. Rogers has five catches for 73 yards and a touchdown on the season.
Sophomore Matt Milton and freshman Vincent Dallas are the other two factors in the race. Like Arnett, Milton and Dallas made their first catches of their Vol careers against the Gators. Milton finished with one catch for 12 yards, while Dallas finished with one catch for six yards. Milton has the frame at 6-6 210 pounds to fill in for Hunter physically, but he has had problems with drops and route running in practice. Dallas enrolled in January and has more experience in the system than his freshman counterpart Arnett, but Arnett may have the upper hand after Saturday.
Picking up Hunter's slack is not only limited to wide receivers; it is a total team effort.
Running backs Tauren Poole, Marlin Lane and Tom Smith will have to perform better than their current 105th national ranking and 81.7 yards per game average suggests they've performed.
Tight ends Mychal Rivera, Brendan Downs, and Cameron Clear will have to pitch in some catches to lighten the load for the receivers.
Rajion Neal and Devrin Young will be used as both receivers and running backs and must perform well at both.
Whoever decides to fill Hunter's shoes must heed Franklin's advice.
He must ask himself, “If not now, when?” And realize the answer is now.