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Hendon Hooker Took The Tennessee QB Job And Ran With It, Most Likely Saving The Vols Season

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If you have paid attention to the way Tennessee has played football this season under Josh Heupel, there’s one player you probably couldn’t help but notice. Hendon Hooker has certainly become the glue that holds this Vols offense together as the team enters the final two games of the regular season. What would this team look like if Hooker hadn’t been on the roster this season? Well, we’ll come back to that.

Because he is on the roster. After deciding to transfer from Virginia Tech in the offseason, Hooker committed to Jeremy Pruitt, who was still the head coach at Tennessee, on January 7th. It was just under two weeks later that Pruitt and staff were fired, leaving question marks about what to expect with a new coaching staff and offensive scheme. The transfer quarterback had no idea what he was walking into in Knoxville, as the Vols administration searched for a new athletic director and head coach. But this didn’t deter Hooker from his goal of becoming the starting quarterback at Tennessee.

There was good news on the horizon for the transfer QB, who started 15 games for the Hokies. Danny White was bringing on a new head coach Hendon was already familiar with from the recruiting trail. But the young man who had spent four years in Blacksburg was now excited to play for Tennessee, no matter who the coach was.

“I was extremely excited,” Hooker said. “Would have been excited with anyone. I was just happy to be here and be at this university and play with the guys that I’m around, the special talents around me. I had a prior relationship with Coach Heup. When he was at Mizzou, he was recruiting me out of high school, so I had a pretty good outlook on our relationship and how he was already. Was really just eager to get into the playbook.”

But things wouldn’t come easy for the quarterback, despite a solid spring practice where he battled with Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer. The coaching staff had decided to bring in Michigan transfer Joe Milton to the quarterback room, as they were enamored with his size and throwing ability.

Fast forward to fall camp, and the coaches were quietly raving about the arm of Milton, who ended up winning the QB battle initially and started the first two games. But there was one thing the coaches missed about Hooker: his mobility and ability to make plays with his feet and on the run.

For the better part of six weeks, Hooker was rolling with the backups, but hoping for that one opportunity to show the coaches his ability during live game action. Hooker will admit that he has improved drastically since the spring, and that improvement was first put on display during the Pittsburgh game, after Milton left due to injury. The transfer had nothing but praise for OC Alex Golesh and QB coach Joey Halzle.

“They helped me the most in just confidence, going out there and playing my game,” Hooker said. “They really just encourage me to go out there and have fun. We prepare hard throughout the week so we’re prepared to rock-and-roll on game day. They really just tell me to go out there and do my thing.”

The two leading receivers for Tennessee this season are Cedric Tillman and Velus Jones Jr., who have 12 combined touchdowns. And if you’re wondering why Hendon has been so consistent with Velus Jones Jr. and Cedric Tillman, well it helps that Hooker and Jones are roommates. They’ve continued to build a bond since early in the summer when they would call up Tillman and tell him to meet them at the field for throwing sessions. So now all those hot days working on routes have paid off, even when they had to spread things out with the other QBs.

It isn’t a knock towards Joe Milton that he hasn’t re-gained his starting spot. It’s just that Hendon Hooker took the opportunity and never let it go. Hooker has shown the staff why he should lead this team and even when Josh Heupel wouldn’t announce a starting QB for a certain period of time this season, it was obvious which guy could lead this team to success.

It has most certainly paid off. Tennessee has gone 4-4 with Hooker behind center, kept things close in Tuscaloosa for three quarters and gone on the road to defeat 18th ranked Kentucky. The stats don’t lie either. Hooker has thrown for 2,138 yards, 22 TDs and only 3 INTs. He’s also run for 464 yards and 4 TDs, leading this Vols offense.

It’s fair to say the Vols would not be sitting at 5-5 on the season if another quarterback were taking the snaps. Joe Milton was too inconsistent with his passes, and he doesn’t have the elusiveness of a guy like Hooker. That’s not a shot, it’s just reality. I certainly don’t see Tennessee beating Kentucky without Hooker, and the game against South Carolina would probably have been much closer. And there isn’t a chance the Ole Miss game would’ve come down to the final possession if it weren’t for Hendon taking the snaps.

So now Tennessee coaches and fans will wait until after the regular season to see whether they will get the opportunity to run it back one more time with Hendon, as he weighs his NFL prospects.

But if Hooker decides to come back next season, we know who the starting QB will be on day one of Josh Heupel’s second season. That is a luxury Tennessee hasn’t had for five years and one members of the program will gladly take. Especially Josh Heupel.

 

Written by Trey Wallace

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  1. Hooker is one of the most surprising stories in the entire SEC this year when you consider it. To put his performance in perspective, he has the 3rd highest quarterback rating in the entire league right now, just points behind Stetson Bennett and Bryce Young. And those two guys are surrounded by NFL talent, throwing to NFL receivers behind NFL o lines, so they ought to be at the top.

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