Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral became a candidate for the Heisman Trophy before Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker nailed down the Vols’ starting job.
To say Hooker has closed some ground during the past month is like confirming a little bit of water flows over Niagara Falls. He has presided over 28-point first quarters during the past two games. The output for 15 minutes has been nearly seven points better than the Vols averaged for the 10 games of last season.
The 6-foot-4, 218-pound redshirt senior has thrown multiple touchdown passes in five consecutive games, becoming the first Tennessee QB to string together such productivity since Tyler Bray in 2012. His TD passes match Hooker’s career high, which he set at Virginia Tech in 2019. In the process, he has not thrown an interception in 90 consecutive attempts.
Hooker’s QB passer rating of 185.87 ranks fifth nationally and first in the SEC, one spot ahead of Corral (182.43).
Hooker’s play is one of the biggest reasons why Saturday’s visit from the Rebels is generating big-game vibes. Neyland Stadium will be checkered orange and white for the occasion. Vols coach Josh Heupel took time during his Monday press briefing to encourage fans not only to dress for the occasion but also be in the proper frame of mind for the 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
“We need it to be a hostile environment,” Heupel said. “We need to make it tough for those guys to communicate. Our fans understand that they’re playing with tempo in their communication. We need to make it loud and make it uncomfortable for them.”
In the midst of all this hype, Hooker would be advised to maintain his low-key approach. It has served him well since becoming the starter against Tennessee Tech on Sept. 18. After throwing for 225 yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina last Saturday, Hooker passed the credit to his teammates.
“The guys around me really elevate my game to another level,” he said. “So, with the ball in my hands, and those guys around me, the whole offense is feeling confident.”
With the football in his hands, Hooker has executed two essentials to UT’s explosive play. First, he has made the deep throws, the ones the Vols were missing on earlier this season. His early TD passes to JaVonta Payton the past two weeks were examples of touchdown passes Tennessee wasn’t completing before.
On his 39-yarder to Payton last week, Hooker set up the score with a strong run fake. Afterward, Heupel conceded in a Vol Network interview that Hooker’s 20 carries might have been too many. He’s run enough so far to be effective – 66 carries for 282 yards and three touchdowns – and force opposing defenses to honor the threat. Another Hooker run fake helped set up Tiyon Evans’ 45-yard touchdown run against the Gamecocks.
Offensive coordinator Alex Golesh noticed Hooker’s calm demeanor as early as last spring.
Hooker’s emergence as UT’s starter has revealed another competitive character trait.
“He is a certifiable dude in terms of toughness, Golesh said.
It’s worth noting that Golesh said he was prouder of Hooker’s play in Tennessee’s loss at Florida than he was a week later in routing Missouri. Even when the Vols were down, Hooker didn’t change.
“When you know what you’re going to get from your quarterback,” Golesh said, “it makes it really, really simple in terms of: you know he’s going to execute the play to the best of his ability and it’s going to go to the right spot, which makes it really simple from our end.”
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at email@example.com.