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Tennessee Feeling ‘Healthy’ After The Bye, While Hendon Hooker Draws Praise For Leadership

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When you have a football team that is very thin on both sides of the football, it’s not easy putting it all together on the field when you’re also dealing with injuries. This is what Tennessee has been dealing with for the past month before getting a much needed week off. This team had injuries across the offensive line, running back group and defensive side. If you named a position, the Vols were hurting at it.

But, with a good 12 days to recover from injury and to get some guys who had to play back to full speed, the coaching staff feels like this group is finally in a healthier place heading into Saturday’s 7 p.m. eastern game against Kentucky (the Vols are getting a half-point against the Wildcats, according to FanDuel.)

Going into the Alabama game, the Vols were banged up at two different spots along the offensive line, as were Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small. Now, it seems as though those days off are paying off. Tennessee OC/TE coach Alex Golesh spoke with the media about how nice it is to have a full stable of players who are mostly healthy again.

“Luckily, I feel like coming back off this bye week that we’ve got a full stable – back to healthy at running back, we’re back to healthy on the O-line. I feel like we’re going to have our best chance now down the stretch to run the football as long as we can obviously stay healthy. But it has been really challenging both in running the football and being able to protect the quarterback in a lot of ways.”

It was obvious that the lack of a running game was going to hurt in Tuscaloosa, as Jabari Small couldn’t do it all and Hendon Hooker was still banged up. So, it was a different type of approach on offense, especially with the offensive line depth.

“I feel like the last three, four, five weeks we’ve really had to piece it together,” Golesh added. “I think coach (Glen) Elarbee has done a really good job of figuring out who the best five are (and) going with the combination. Guys like Jerome Carvin being able to play center has been really monumental to our success. The running back spot has been really frustrating with at times being so limited with who you have back there. It’s been tough in a lot of ways, specifically to run the football.”

Hendon Hooker
. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

This exact reason is why Hendon Hooker has been so beneficial to this football team, even when banged up. His ability to make plays with his feet has helped the offensive line , who were struggling to maintain, especially over the last month. If it weren’t for the running and leadership ability of Hooker, who knows where this team might be this week. You don’t have to say it twice to running back Jabari Small, who openly expressed how much Hendon means to this football team.

“The world. He’s a great player, great leader. He’s playing very great right now. We just want to continue that, and we’re locked in behind him. He’s a great leader.”

Jabari has been dealing with a nagging shoulder injury, which has held him back at times. It was key for him to get time to heal up, whether that be an off-week or missing a game, which he prefers not to do. But, heading into the game against Kentucky, the Vols rusher is happy to have had time to heal up and is excited to hit the field again with a healthy offense.

“Yeah, I’m very excited. I feel like that’s a big part in the bye week, just getting healthy. That should be fun. When we’re all healthy we feel as if we have a lot of confidence to winning the game. I’m very excited.”

Courtesy Of Tennessee Athletics

As for Hendon Hooker, who was not the starting quarterback as the season began, you can tell how much he’s grown as a leader on and off the field, especially in the eyes of his teammates. But, this has been a constant fight for Hooker. He continues to earn the respect of his coaches, hoping to be the guy needed to run this offense. The trust of your coaches is key, knowing they want the ball in your hands when the clock is ticking down. This is how Alex Golesh described Hooker and the confidence he brings to this football team.

“I want the ball in his hands at the end of the game. I think it gives us the best chance to win. You are going to get it to the guys who give you the best chance to win. I am extremely confident, and our offense is extremely confident with him having the ball in his hands. Our injuries at running back have caused some of that. Our injuries on the offensive line have caused some of that. At the end of the game, I want the ball in Hendon Hooker’s hands, and he knows that. I think he has a level of confidence about him right now, and offensively, we have a level of confidence with him carrying the football.”

The Vols are healthy, hungry and ready to attack the final four games of the regular season. If you listen to the assistant coaches, they have all the confidence in this group taking the next step forward.

Things are a lot easier when you’ve got a healthy group to call plays for. We’ll see whether it pays off on Saturday.

 

Written by Trey Wallace

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