How Much Can Hendon Hooker Improve In Second Year In Heupel’s System?

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    Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel rejuvenated the Volunteer football program in his first season as head coach and quarterback Hendon Hooker played a larger role in that than anyone else.

    The Virginia Tech transfer spent his first five quarters in Knoxville on the bench as starting quarterback Joe Milton III missed open receiver after open receiver down the field. Milton was injured and exited the week two matchup against Pitt early in the second quarter.

    Hooker didn’t look back, throwing for 188 yards and two touchdowns while adding 49 rushing yards. A crucial fourth quarter interception ended Tennessee’s comeback bid, but the Vols found an offensive rhythm with the senior quarterback.

    Hooker took nearly every meaningful snap the rest of the season and was extremely effective, completing 68% of his passes for 2,945 yards, 31 touchdown passes and just three interceptions.

    The North Carolina native was dynamic on his feet playing behind an average offensive line that rotated bodies constantly due to injuries, rushing for 620 yards and five touchdowns.

    As Tennessee enters Heupel’s second season with increased expectations, Hooker’s growth from senior to super senior season is integral to the Vols’ success.

    The obvious reason for growth is comfortability. Hooker spent last offseason competing for the starting job and learning a new system at a new school. The 6-foot-4 signal caller knows he’s Tennessee’s starter entering the season and he has 12 games of experience in Heupel’s high tempo offense.

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    “Last year you get here and in year one it is a lot about how do I call the play?” Tennessee quarterback’s coach Joey Halzle said this spring. “Where do my eyes go? Now, he has grown to the next step of seeing the second and third reads. He’s also able to play games with the defense by knowing where he wants to go with the ball, knowing what the defensive structure is, what their rules are and how to manipulate that, how to playing the game with the other side of the ball and get the result that he wants. He has made a huge jump in the offseason with defensive understanding. It is really showing out there on the field right now.”

    Hooker’s increased confidence and comfortability was evident in spring practice according to coaches who raved about his understanding and ability to speak up in the meeting room about what he did and didn’t like.

    “In terms of input in the offense, he now has a really good understanding of it,” offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said. “He’ll speak up. He’s not a big ask you for things guy, more of a tell you what he doesn’t want guy. He has the same input he had a year ago. If there’s something he doesn’t like, we won’t do it. Obviously, it’s all about him being comfortable back there.”

    Where does Hooker have room to grow?

    Consistency is a broad area and one that applies to nearly every player across the country. As good as Hooker was in 2021, the Greensboro native struggled with his accuracy in late season losses against Georgia in Purdue.

    With a number of toss up games on Tennessee’s schedule, a handful of missed throws could be the difference in a win or two this fall.

    Hooker struggled throwing the ball on the run in his first year at Tennessee. While the signal caller was effective extending plays with his legs, it rarely led to big plays down the field. Hooker was better at picking up small chunks of yards on the ground when extending plays than finding receivers down the field. 

    Tennessee’ coaches want the super senior to put his body in harm’s way less this season than he did his first year in Knoxville. While Hooker avoided serious injury he was banged up for much of the second half of the season, limiting his usage on designed quarterback runs. Halzle said knowing when to slide was a major focal point in the fall.

    Hooker played at a fringe All-SEC level in 2021. If he solidifies that level of performance, Tennessee’s chances of a breakout season skyrocket.

    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.