NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A 46-yard touchdown catch during his junior year in high school – that's when Justin Hunter knew he could glide past a defense and there's nothing anyone could do about it.
"It was a go-route and I just ran right past my guy for 46 yards. That game all we did was throw deep balls and I had like six catches for 172 yards and three touchdowns," Hunter recalled, as if he didn't know the exact stats from his memorable prep football game.
Hunter had always been faster than the kids he grew up with in his home town of Virginia Beach, Va. The term "God gifted" in regards to physical talents was created for natural athletes like Hunter.
His passion for football stems from a childhood admiration for Randy Moss, the man who made a living out of catching long touchdowns.
"I looked at him since I started playing football. He always went deep," Hunter said giving evidence behind his affinity for going long. "People called me 'Lil' Randy' and I even had the braids like Moss."
Football wasn't Hunter's only sport growing up. Basketball was his first love before discovering he had the athletic ability to dust his competition in track and field.
"I started track in eighth grade, but then took a year off before 10th grade," he explained. "My first meet ever I set a school record in high jump. My first jump was 6-feet 4-inches and from there, I just took off."
When Hunter says 'took off,' it should be taken quite literally.
A ridiculous 7-feet 3-inches would ultimately be Hunter's top mark in the high jump. His best long jump in high school stretched 25-feet 10¾ inches, qualifying him for the IAAF World Junior Championships. Track and Field News rated him the country's No. 3 long jumper, No. 7 high jumper, and No. 14 triple jumper. Hunter won Virginia state titles in both the long jump and high jump while having to settle for a *measly *silver medal in triple jump.
As is the case for all multi-sport athletes, decisions had to be made as colleges came knocking on Hunter's door. First and foremost was the decision between the gridiron and the hardwood. Opportunity at the professional level is what Hunter focused on.
The NBA Draft has a mere two rounds. With 30 NBA franchises, that leaves only 60 players hearing their names called annually. Alternatively, the NFL Draft has seven rounds. Multiply that by the 32 NFL teams, add the 32 compensatory picks, and you get 256 draft picks each year.
For a decision that carried so much weight, those numbers made it a no-brainer for Hunter.
Now down to just two sports, Hunter made up his mind that he still wanted to run track in college. A few conversations with the University of Tennessee had him ready to throw on Volunteer orange while singing 'Rocky Top' on his way to Knoxville.
"UT is a big track school as well as football," Hunter recalled of his decision. "I had a good conversation with both coaches and they agreed to let me run track as well as play football as a true freshman."
Hunter etched his name in Tennessee history books during his freshman year in both sports. In 2010, his seven receiving touchdowns set a UT record for a freshman and earned Hunter All-SEC Freshman Team honors. Additionally, four of Lil' Randy's seven scores went for 30 yards or longer.
His track and field accolades included a Tennessee freshman record with a long jump of 26-feet 1½-inches while being named first-team USTFCCA Indoor All-American in the event. Hunter also made the SEC Indoor All-Freshman Team as the highest finishing rookie in the long jump at the league championships.
An ACL tear in Week 3 of Hunter's sophomore football campaign cost him that season and forced him to hang up his track shoes for good.
"I didn't think I was going to be able to jump the same," Hunter said. "I had an eight-month recovery and it didn't feel the same jumping on it. If I came back to track I would have had to change up everything technique-wise."
Titans Online looks back at the rookie season of wide receiver Justin Hunter. (Photos: Donn Jones, AP)
With his focus solely on football in 2012, Hunter returned to the field in full form and started all 12 games as a junior. His 73 receptions led the Vols, and he racked up 1,083 yards and nine receiving touchdowns. The combination of a monster season under his belt and Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray leaving for the draft had Hunter deciding the time was right to make his transition to the NFL.
A meeting and workout with quarterbacks coach Shawn Jefferson marked the only interaction Hunter had with the Titans throughout the pre-draft process. Even though Tennessee used its 2012 first-round pick on Kendall Wright, Hunter's agent Jimmy Sexton figured the Titans could be in the market for another offensive weapon.
Hunter went through the first night of the draft without hearing his name. However as the second round began on day two, Hunter's 6-foot 4-inch frame, 4.40-second 40-yard dash, and 39½-inch vertical didn't remain on the board much longer.
The Titans owned the 40th overall selection (seventh pick of the second round) and traded up six spots to claim San Francisco's 34th pick. Hunter's phone began to ring.
"My agent called me and said 'I think they're going to get you, they just traded up so stay by your phone,'" Hunter recalled.
The next call would come from Titans brass to confirm the selection, general manager Ruston Webster followed by then-head coach Mike Munchak. Hunter boarded a plane south to Nashville and arrived at Saint Thomas Sports Park the next day.
"It was just pure happiness. My mom was crying and all that but I was just ecstatic," Hunter said.
Hunter's rookie season was filled with flashes of his coveted potential – 18 receptions for 354 yards and four touchdowns – including a last-minute, game-winning 34-yard touchdown catch against the San Diego Chargers.
Hunter remained a focal point of offseason Titans chatter around the league circles. His name appeared on countless 'Players to Watch' and 'Breakout Candidate' lists that filled the internet until training camp began at the end of July.
The hype-machine was working overtime, but Hunter kept cool under the rising expectations.
"I don't feel pressure at all," he said." My coaches put pressure on me to make plays but I know I can live up to it. I have great teammates that stay on me."
One of the most memorable days of camp was when Hunter marched out of the locker room doors adorned with a jersey with "J.A.G." replacing his last name. "Just Another Guy" is what the acronym stood for, another reminder that potential doesn't mean anything until it turns into production on Sundays.
All involved with the prank enjoyed a good laugh over Hunter's new duds. Even Hunter was able to find the humor at his own expense.
"It's cool," Hunter smiled. "I didn't worry about it. Coach Jefferson had made jokes about it the day before, so I planned to take my jersey back to the team hotel so they couldn't do anything to it. Unfortunately I forgot and the rest is history.
"I came to my locker to put on my pads the next day and I saw the jersey. It was just that feeling of 'Ah they got me.' But it was all just jokes and nothing bad or anything."
After a slow start to his second NFL season, Hunter has begun to come alive. A 75-yard touchdown against the Browns became a new career-high as he posted back-to-back 70-plus yard performances.
The goal continues for Hunter – the need to transition from a deep-ball specialist to a receiver that can be relied upon in all aspects of the position.
"In this league, you can't be just a deep ball guy," Hunter said. "Shawn [Jefferson] is trying to mold me into a receiver that can do it all. You have to stay on it. You can't have any days off. I need to pay attention to the details, keep listening to my coaches and keep working."
Hunter has seen his snap count rise each week this season. He's already a focal point of Tennessee's passing attack, and soon enough he'll be the envy of the rest of the NFL.