KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter won't get to ease his way back as he returns from a torn anterior cruciate ligament that ended his 2011 season prematurely.
Rather than opening with a lightweight opponent, Tennessee kicks off its season Friday at the Georgia Dome against a veteran North Carolina State secondary that features All-America cornerback and 2011 NCAA interceptions leader David Amerson.
Hunter prefers it that way.
"It's a good thing to go out there against a good corner and show the world I came back and how ready I am," Hunter said.
Hunter says he's back at 100 percent after tearing the ACL in his left knee during the third game of the 2011 season. The Volunteers need him at full strength as they prepare to play without all-Southeastern Conference receiver Da'Rick Rogers, who transferred to Tennessee Tech on Monday after the Volunteers indefinitely suspended him for a violation of team rules.
Hunter caught 17 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns before getting hurt last year. Tennessee's other starting receiver is Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College transfer Cordarrelle Patterson, who makes his Division I debut Friday. Vincent Dallas, who played receiver last year before moving to defensive back in the spring, returned to offense this week as the Vols attempt to add depth to their receiving corps.
"We have no experience really at wideout," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "Going into this game, we like the players we have, but we have no experience."
North Carolina State's secondary also is shorthanded. C.J. Wilson, a starting cornerback the last two seasons, won't play Friday because of an NCAA eligibility issue.
The absence of Rogers and Wilson puts more pressure on Hunter and Amerson. Their anticipated duel should rank among the top one-on-one matchups across the nation this week.
Hunter, a 6-foot-4 junior, was leading the SEC in receiving yards per game until his injury last season. Amerson, a 6-3 junior, set an Atlantic Coast Conference record last year with 13 interceptions.
"He's as good as there is out there at corner," Dooley said. "It starts with height, weight, speed and position skills, which he obviously has. But there's also an intangible dynamic playmaking attitude that usually the great ones in the back end have, and he's got it."
Amerson wasn't made available to reporters this week due to a class conflict, but he spoke this summer about how he savors matchups with star wideouts.
"I like going up against the best guys," Amerson said. "I just thrive off stuff like that. That's how I've always been. I love competition and I love to compete. They say if you want to be the best, you have to go against the best, so that's something I try to pride myself on."
The Vols respect Amerson, but they don't fear him.
"We're going to treat him just like any other DB," Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray said. "I mean, we're not going to shy away from him. We're going to go at him."
This type of matchup isn't unusual for Hunter.
Hunter faced eventual first-round draft picks Morris Claiborne of LSU and Dre Kirkpatrick of Alabama in 2010, though he got injured before Tennessee faced those two teams last year. That experience could help Hunter prepare for Amerson.
"Like Dre Kirkpatrick, he's real tall and he's a good athlete," Hunter said. "He's just like Dre Kirkpatrick."
Hunter's pretty good in his own right, though he hasn't been able to show it lately.
"It's been almost a full year since he played in a game," Dooley said. "To expect him to come back and just light it up is probably unrealistic."
North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien isn't so sure.
"The wider you play away from the ball, the easier it is to get back into the swing of things," O'Brien said. "Wide receivers can come back from injuries and almost start off from where they were with very little drop-off."
Hunter believes he can deliver immediately. He says he can do all the same things he was doing last year. In fact, he thinks he may have improved.
"I'm doing a lot of things better," Hunter said. "I'm just playing the deep ball a lot better than I was last year and trying to get more physical than I was last year."