More Good Than Bad From Hooker Against Pitt

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    Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

    Hendon Hooker got his first meaningful snaps at Tennessee in the Vols 41-34 loss to Pittsburgh Saturday.

    With Pitt having outscored Tennessee 17-3 since midway through the first quarter, Hooker entered due to a Joe Milton injury with 8:27 left in the first half. Hooker’s start was rocky as the Vols went three-and-out on his first drive and totaled one yard on the first five offensive plays.

    Then Hooker made his first completion, finding Cedric Tillman for 20 yards on third-and-six and the following play sophomore receiver Jimmy Calloway took a screen pass 44 yards for a game tying touchdown.

    From there, Hooker settled in and looked much more confident. The Virginia Tech transfer finished the game 15-of-21 passing for 188 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

    “Hendon did a great job coming off the bench, competing, giving us a chance, making some plays with his feet and being decisive with the ball in his hands,” Heupel said postgame. “There are things he would want to do better and do differently. Obviously, the last play he had an opportunity on where we turned it over, but I thought our football team rallied around him, believed in him, and he went out there and competed. He fought extremely hard and gave us a chance in the second half.”

    What really made Hooker effective against Pitt wasn’t his arm, but his ability to extend plays and beat the defense with his feet.

    The 6-foot-4 senior totaled 49 rushing yards on nine attempts, but if you take out the three times he was sacked, Hooker totaled 69 yards on six carries. That’s pretty darn effective, especially considering Tennessee’s running backs totaled 33 yards on 19 carries.

    “Obviously, it was tremendous to be able to have him move, move the pocket, scramble when he needed to,” tight end Jacob Warren said. “We had some quarterback runs and everything like that so the ability to add that extra element to the offensive was huge against them.”

    Hooker’s ability to keep Pitt off balance with his feet completely changed Tennessee’s offense and ability to run the ball. Josh Heupel and his offensive staff used quarterback draws to counter the aggression of Pitt’s pass rushers. 

    The senior made plays scrambling too, including a 23 yard scamper on third-and-15 where he broke a tackle down field to move the chains. Two plays later, Hooker faked a quarterback power and threw a perfect ball to Warren for a nine-yard touchdown.

    Late in the game, Hooker scrambled on third-and-four deep in Pitt’s territory, seemingly getting the first down before a controversial spot went against Tennessee. 

    There was some bad from Hooker too, the former Virginia Tech starter fumbled early in the second half and stared down his receiver before throwing what proved to be a game clinching interception. 

    Still, there was more good than bad from Hooker in his first meaningful Tennessee snaps. Hooker helped the Vols move the ball while his offensive line struggled, and while Tennessee’s offensive line is dealing with an injury to Cooper Mays and can play better, that’s far from a given.

    The Vols’ offensive line is not one of the strengths of the team and having a quarterback that can run the way Hooker can is extremely beneficial.

    And that leads me to what’s going to be a fascinating decision for Heupel. How does he handle Milton and Hooker? 

    Heupel said Milton couldn’t return Saturday but his injury seemed to be minor and the Michigan transfer likely won’t be out long. Does Heupel stick with Hooker, go back to Milton or play a combination of both?

    Hooker doesn’t have the arm to do some of the down field passing Heupel prides his offense on but quite frankly, Milton hasn’t executed those throws early in the season either.

    But this reminds me of a point Heupel made in his introductory press conference— a comment that excited Vol fans after the failures of the previous regime.

    “You really do change year-to-year based on what your personnel is,” Heupel said. “That’s who your quarterback is, what’s his skill set is there. Who are the skill players around him? Whether you’re going to play in three-wide receiver sets, four-wide receiver sets or if you’re going to be in two-tight end sets. We’ve played in all of those things. It comes down to always looking at— I think it’s critical on the offensive side of the ball but it’s the same thing I’ll point out to my defensive staff and special teams staff- don’t look at what kids can’t do, look at what they can do at a high level and put them in position to have success. That is a coach’s job.”

    Hendon Hooker had more success as a starting quarterback at Virginia Tech than Milton did at Michigan. Hooker has been better— and I can’t stress this next part enough— in his very limited playing time.

    Time may show that Milton’s better than his first five quarters or that Hooker is worse than his first three, but to date Hooker has been UT’s best quarterback.

    Heupel and his staff have two weeks to have a quarterback ready at Florida, and really three weeks to have one ready for a pivotal SEC game at Missouri. In games, Hooker has been the most effective quarterback on Tennessee’s roster.

    The question is, will Heupel mold his system around the senior’s talents or try to ride with the quarterback that can make all the throws needed in Heupel’s system.

    Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.

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