Josh Heupel rarely offers much in the way of injury updates. Tennessee’s football coach made an exception on Monday regarding three Vols.
Heupel’s change of plan spoke to the importance of the trio. Hendon Hooker is the starting quarterback. Tiyon Evans is the most productive running back to date. Cade Mays is the most accomplished offensive lineman.
“Hendon, Tiyon and Cade are probably day-to-day at this point,” Heupel said. “We’ll see as the week unfolds where we end up with Hendon.”
Since the question centered on Hooker, Heupel elaborated on his status, adding: “I don’t think it’s a long-term injury. As for his status this week, we’ll find out as we go.”
Rather than consider Hooker’s condition on a daily basis, Tennessee ought to think long term. If there’s any lingering after effects from the apparent leg injury he suffered in the final minute against Ole Miss, the redshirt senior should sit out Saturday’s game at Alabama.
Hooker’s presence against the Crimson Tide wouldn’t make enough difference to risk further damage against an opponent with overwhelming talent and depth. With no game the following week, Hooker would have an extra week to heal before the season’s final push.
The Vols (4-3, 2-2 SEC) finish with a visit to Kentucky on Nov. 6, followed by home games against Georgia, South Alabama and Vanderbilt. Of those games, the top-ranked Bulldogs are beyond the Vols’ reach. Beating the No. 15 Wildcats in Lexington, Ky., would be a tall order and only possible if Hooker is healthy.
Hooker’s play, arguably more than anyone’s, helped create last Saturday’s big-game atmosphere. He led the Vols to three lopsided victories in the preceding weeks, rising to the top of the SEC passer ratings.
Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral, a Heisman Trophy candidate, did the work of two players in amassing 426 yards of total offense and throwing two touchdown passes in Saturday’s 31-26 victory. Hooker’s performance didn’t suffer by comparison, however.
Hooker accounted for 341 yards of offense and had a hand in two TDs (one pass, one run). He topped 100 yards rushing for the first time this season, running for 108 on a career-high 23 carries.
In leading the Vols back from a 24-9 deficit, Hooker played turnover-free football, extending his streak of pass attempts without an interception to 116. It’s the eighth-longest such streak in program history.
Hooker got hurt on his final rushing attempt. Without him, backup Joe Milton III threw a little too high for Cedric Tillman in the end zone. Finally, Milton didn’t throw at all, inexplicably trying to scramble 21 yards for the winning score on the game’s final play. He didn’t make it.
“(Joe) has got to find a way at the end of the day to get that ball in the end zone, give somebody a chance,” Heupel said.
Under the circumstances, Tennessee might have been better off deploying backup QB Harrison Bailey, who has a passer’s pedigree. There’s no question, though, the Vols are much better with Hooker. Don’t take any chances with him this week.
In other matters:
- Tennessee was fined $250,000 by the SEC for fans throwing debris on the field in the final minute of Saturday’s game. The total is comparable to what other conference schools have been penalized. The money will be taken from UT’s conference revenue.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.