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Hendon Hooker Reflects On ‘Difficult’ Start At Tennessee And His Drive To Prosper In This Offense

For Hendon Hooker, the road to Knoxville was filled with a few bumps. The Virginia Tech transfer was trying to navigate life while making the most out of his ability on the field. We saw that ability first-hand last season when he entered the game against Pittsburgh.

Hooker was a guest on “The Slice”, which is a Tennessee football podcast hosted by Kasey Funderburg and put on by “Vol For Life” films. 

We have heard many times over the past thirteen months that the coaching staff really didn’t know what they had with Hooker until he was able to show it off in a live-game situation. The preseason practices and even his first spring practice in Knoxville weren’t showcasing his talent as a scrambler and dual-threat weapon. The coaches were amazed to see his ability once they took the no-contact jersey off. But Hooker waited for his chance, never wavering on the mentality that got him to this point, a mentality that began his last year at Virginia Tech.

Before the start of the 2020 season, Hooker contracted COVID. After the doctors performed a few tests on him, they came back with a startling diagnosis. Hooker was told that they had found something in his results and that he might need surgery on his heart. During the brief period before he was about to undergo a second test on his heart at Virginia Tech, he made a promise to himself to change his outlook on the game of football.

“I remember writing down a poem to the game of football, just promising that after God and my family, that I would put football before anything else, during that little split-second from there and being put under by the doctor, to waking up.

Luckily, the second test came back with good news and he could resume playing football. After the 2020 season, Hooker decided it was time for a change and he transferred to Tennessee.

But the transfer didn’t come without a hiccup. He was recruited by Jeremy Pruitt, but just as he was getting settled at Tennessee, Pruitt found himself in an NCAA scandal and Josh Heupel was brought in to be the new head coach. Hooker decided to keep his head down and continue to work, despite the coaching change.

“Just staying locked in and continuing to work hard. I believe and my family believes that hard work is unbeaten and has been unbeaten throughout my whole life. So, I continued to work hard and keep the main thing the main thing.”

Things really do seem to work out in the long run though. Hooker and Heupel already had a previous relationship. While in high school, Heupel was the offensive coordinator at Missouri and he recruited Hooker.

“It was pretty much a social-media relationship,” Hooker said. “We just hopped on the phone a couple times, shot a couple texts and DMs and that’s when he was at Missouri. So having that relationship with him there, and I remember him telling me, ‘You look good, I love your game,’ and that kind of gave me a boost of confidence in high school. I remember his first day of being hired, I was like, ‘Oh, wow. Coach Heup, what’s going on?’ Seeing him again was real cool, and now playing for him and learning from him has been great.”

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows though. Hooker also had to learn a new offensive scheme, and he wasn’t used to the new speed.

“Now, it’s lovely, but the first two or three months in the offense was difficult. Just trying to move so fast and think at the same time was tough, but the more repetition and the more work you put in at it, just like anything, you’ll get better at it.”

Hendon was hell bent on figuring out how other quarterbacks who worked under Heupel had success. He did his homework on Heupel, and didn’t just rely on word of mouth or former players in his system. He also watched hours of tape and learned how other QBs prospered in the up-tempo system.

“Just seeing the success [Heupel’s] had with other quarterbacks as well. I catch myself watching a lot of Drew Lock, a lot of McKenzie Milton, a lot of Dillon Gabriel, just because they’ve gone through the offense and have prospered in the offense as well. 

“All the knowledge Coach Heup gives me and the rest of the quarterbacks in the quarterback room is nothing but positive advice and nothing but words of encouragement to help us and help us build our game, not just on the field, but off the field as men as well.”

As Hooker runs this offense day in and day out, he focuses on speed and handling adversities that come along the way.

“The biggest thing was moving fast but being in control, not being in a hurry and making sure everything is fluent and running efficiently.” 

The first time Hooker took the field was during mop-up duty against Bowling Green, after Joe Milton had started the game. But the real test came the next week against Pittsburgh, when Milton was injured and Hooker was now getting the opportunity he had worked so hard for. To say it was interesting would be putting it nice. He made a few mistakes, but led Tennessee to a comeback that almost won them the game.

“That was interesting, a lot of the time, Coach Heup and Coach (Joey) Halzle, they tell us to go out there and play fast and don’t try to think as much,” Hooker said. “My first game, I was thinking so much, I was like, ‘Wow, do I want to do this? (Do I want to do that?)’ So just trying to be decisive in all my decision-making was definitely something I had to kind of (have) a come-to-Jesus moment, had to sit back and kind of enjoy everything that was going on.

“I remember I would come off the field and my face would be scrunched up and I’d be like, ‘Man, I’ve got to lock in,’ and they’d be like, ‘No, relax, smile, have fun.’ That’s definitely helped me out,” Hooker added.

But now comes his second spring practice at Tennessee. The competition will surround him, but this is the first time in a while that Vol fans won’t have to worry about who their starting quarterback will be for the upcoming season. Hooker has earned it, but he still feels he has so much more to prove.

Tennessee fans are hoping it pays off in 2022.

Written by Trey Wallace

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