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Hendon Hooker Becoming The ‘Certifiable Dude’ At Tennessee

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It wasn’t long ago that Tennessee was in the midst of spring practice, trying to figure out who could lead this football team at quarterback. Things certainly changed during the off-season, as another quarterback transferred into the program, turning fall camp into a three-man competition. But, as we moved closer towards the first game of the season, the coaching staff had their eyes on one transfer, while another had to wait his turn.

The Vols started off the season with Joe Milton behind center, a decision that seemed like the right one to the coaching staff, as he showed off his arm throughout fall camp. After two games though, it was clear that things weren’t working. Then, when Milton sustained a hit during the Pittsburgh game, transfer Hendon Hooker stepped in and tried to lead Tennessee to a comeback against the Panthers, and he hasn’t looked back since.

Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

The Vols (-10.5 on FanDuel) play host to the South Carolina Gamecocks on Saturday at noon Eastern.

Now, we are starting to see the reason why Hooker has become the starting quarterback. I’ve spoken with folks around the Vols football program, and the one thing they say about Hooker is that he has a strong mental presence. During the off-season, he learned to be a leader on a brand new team, with a coaching staff he was familiar with. But since then, he’s brought out the best in himself and become the leader this team needs.

There was a lot of uncertainty about his toughness coming into the season, but OC Alex Golesh argues that some of that chatter wasn’t exactly fair:

“What you didn’t know through spring and summer – because (the quarterbacks) are in a red jersey and you can’t hit them – it how tough he is. He is a certifiable dude in terms of toughness. He runs the ball extremely hard, sometimes if you ask (Joey Halzle) he needs to be smarter in how he is finishing runs. I think, from the outside looking in, it’s awesome that he is diving head-first sometimes, like a little bit chaotic there, that’s your quarterback on the ground.”

There were concerns about Hooker’s ability to play with the tempo necessary in this offensive scheme, but after last week’s performance, his reaction time has continued to get better, according to Golesh.

“I think, more than anything for us and there was a question about the tempo, it’s him being comfortable snapping that football as fast as we need him to. I don’t know (about) the first couple of weeks that he did that, but I felt like this last week, he did.”

From the outside looking in, it appears that all the reps he’s received in practice have finally paid off. It can be hard to duplicate what you see in games, especially from a tempo aspect, but I think what Golesh said rings true right now. Before the season began, it was hard to tell what Hooker could do without the threat of getting hit or being able to show off that elusive playmaking ability.

Courtesy Of Tennessee Athletics

Now, when he has a running attack like the one Tennessee produced last weekend against Missouri, picking on the DBs will become even easier. But, I didn’t see many overthrown balls to receivers, which plagued the Vols through the first few games this season. You’re seeing a quarterback who’s comfortable in the pocket and also comfortable with his coaches, both of which can go a long way.

Let’s not forget his teammates, who have now had multiple weeks to work with him as their starting quarterback. Take for instance Velus Jones Jr., who is roommates with Hooker. There was a reason Heupel and his staff decided to move Velus into the slot position and put Cedric Tillman and JaVonta Payton out wide. Veteran playmakers make the job of the quarterback that much easier, and we saw that against Missouri, a game in which each one had a TD catch.

Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

On Monday, Josh Heupel spoke about the receivers and quarterback being on task together. He also spoke about the level of comfort that Hooker has in what they are tying to accomplish.

“He’s been better taking care of the football with the ball in his hands. Some of our meshes have been better, more consistent. I think that happens as you get more time on task together with the same guys. I think as much as anything, great comfort and understanding what we’re doing, the tempo. He has been really in control of what’s going on at the line of scrimmage, been really good with his eyes and that’s allowed him to be really decisive with the football. He was extremely accurate the other day. A lot of them stems from eyes in the right place. Seeing things really clearly and allows you to get your body in the right spot.”

So, now Hendon gets another opportunity to showcase his skillset without having to look over his shoulder. This is now his football team, and while he must continue earning the right to be the starting quarterback at Tennessee, the coaching staff feels he’s the right guy, right now, to lead this team into battle.

He’s been that “certifiable dude” so far, now time will tell whether the Vols have finally figured out the quarterback position. If Hendon continues to prove the coaches right, this season could provide even more highlights.

Written by Trey Wallace

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