Justin Hunter grew up in Virginia, but the state of Tennessee has felt like home as he travels around the state.
He became an All-SEC wide receiver in Tennessee before spending his first three NFL seasons with the Titans, who selected him in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft. After retiring, he moved further west across the state to Memphis, where his wife is from.
So it seemed natural that his move into coaching would find his way to the Tigers. Hunter will be working with the Receivers as a research assistant throughout the 2023 season, and for that he has several unexpected connections to thank.
“It’s such a small world. Coach (Ryan) Silverfield and my high school head coach, Chris Scott, actually went to the same college (Hampden-Sydney) together,” Hunter told the Commercial Appeal.
Hunter began as an assistant coach at St. Benedict High School, where he worked with former Tigers tight end Joey Magnifico. But he felt the urge to go back to college and work with older athletes.
At 31, he’s young enough to relate to players, but he also has experience of wisdom from six NFL seasons.
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“I love being in the excitement. I love helping people. High school showed that, but then I wanted to step up and try college,” Hunter said. “That’s where I earned my money to be drafted. So I understand where (players) want to go and it’s a bit more serious where time is ticking and a kid has to put things together.”
Before meeting Silverfield, Hunter met offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey because her sons played tackle football with the Lakeland Lions. At the start of last season, Hunter introduced himself and inquired about open coaching positions.
Cramsey said he would keep an eye on him in case anything opened up. After Larry Smith was hired as receiver coach that offseason, Hunter was added and the two teamed up to play in the SEC.
The two played each other in 2010 when Smith was quarterback for Vanderbilt. Smith was injured in 2011 when the two teams met again. Hunter found that Smith’s name was known when he looked up his resume for his time as a UAB receiver coach.
“When he got here, we chopped it up for a while and stabbed each other in the brain to see what we knew,” Hunter said. “We’re really on the same page so we watched the film and found some ways we could help them up their game to get the boys now.”
He quickly learned that Memphis fans behave differently than Tennessee fans, but the passion is similar. Even before moving, he watched the program grow through his brother-in-law, Sam Craft, who played both football and basketball.
Now he’ll see it up close as he helps build a Tigers reception corps that will have to replace all three of last season’s starters.
“Memphis defines itself as a separate state. I like that they rally around their football team,” Hunter said. “I’m ready to see how it goes during the football season.”