How Joey Halzle Unlocked Hendon Hooker’s Potential Using Basketball

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    Something clicked for Hendon Hooker during the 2021 year.

    After spending three years at Virginia Tech, Hooker decided to enter his name into the transfer portal in December of 2020. Less than one month later, Hooker announced that he would be transferring to Tennessee.

    But even after transferring to Knoxville, Hooker wasn’t going to be the Vols’ guaranteed starter, and even lost the opening quarterback battle to Joe Milton III in fall camp.

    So what influenced the change that saw Hendon Hooker go from Tennessee backup to one of college football’s most efficient quarterbacks in just 12 games?

    While able to look back in the rearview mirror now, Tennessee quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle recalls Hooker’s business mindset during his arrival. Halzle said on Tuesday that getting Hooker to lighten up and have fun playing football again was crucial to his success in 2021.

    “Because he was exclusively business-minded when we got here, everything about him was tight,” Halzle said during a press conference Tuesday. “This is an extremely talented athlete that’s not showcasing any of his athleticism. We had to just bend that mind a little bit and work on his mind every single day to, ‘Yes. This is football, this is fun. You have to be serious, but you have to do it in a fun way.’ (Having fun) doesn’t mean not paying attention. It doesn’t mean being completely goofy out there on the field, and not having a mindset that we have something to go do. But there’s a way to do it in which you can still enjoy the game that you’re playing.”

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    According to Halzle, the long road of ups and downs in college football took a toll on Hooker. Not that his enthusiasm was diminished, or he didn’t love the game anymore – he was too locked into the game of football. Or, at the very least, not experiencing all the different and unique aspects that come with playing football at the collegiate level.

    After assessing the root of the problem, Halzle was hit with the solution – basketball. Halzle said that he had seen Hooker play basketball several times, and always watched an incredible athlete dominate on the court with a smile on his face. That’s the Hendon Hooker that Halzle wanted to translate to the football field.

    “I watched him when he was messing around playing basketball,” Halzle said. “He’d get a big smile on his face, and nobody could guard him. I told him last year in the summer, ‘I want you to play football like you play basketball.’ Because when he plays basketball, he knows he’s the best player on the court.”

    Eventually, something switched for Hooker and he started to have fun with the game again. And Halzle took notice.

    “When he started doing that, he started loosening up, and that’s when you saw the growth in Hendon last year,” Halzle said. “I noticed that being serious every single moment of his life didn’t work for him.”

    Now approaching his second and final season with Tennessee, Hooker has fully embraced his role as a leader with the Vols’ program. And it isn’t hard to see that Hooker is having fun heading into the upcoming season.

    Hooker and his brother, Alston Hooker, co-authored a book in 2022 titled The ABCs of Scripture for Athletes. Hooker brought the book to SEC Media Days and spoke about how much it meant to him.

    Hooker also spoke about things such as what video games he grew up playing, what he and his teammates roast each other over in the locker room, and his seemingly neverending debate with Cedric Tillman about the best rap artists of all time.

    “”When we first got here, I watched every clip that every quarterback that was on campus had from game film,” Halzle said on Tuesday. “Hendon was clearly very talented. I was excited for the opportunity to work with him. With what everybody said about him, he was a great guy. Starting to work with him when we first got here in February, March and then into spring ball, Hendon was a guy who was way too far in the business model, meaning that nothing was fun. Everything was serious. That wasn’t his best way to play. For some guys it is. It is not for him. We had to spend a long time working on having him really just enjoy the game while working hard. Working hard doesn’t mean serious all of the time, though. He is fun. He is enjoying himself and enjoying his time out on the field. That is what has allowed his talent to now take over again. He’s not tightening himself up with his own mind.”

    Tennessee and quarterback Hendon Hooker will open the season in Knoxville against Ball State on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.

    Ric Butler is a Knoxville based sports media personality who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 2017. Most recently, he served as the lead writer for the website of a local radio station. Ric also helped create and host a daily radio show called “The Blitz." Ric’s passion for sports, smooth vocal, and infectious personality have made him popular with both his peers and Vol Nation. Originally from Dallas, Ric didn’t grow up riding horses to school. But he did dream of the big city lights. When not chasing down the latest Tennessee story, Ric can be found watching the WWE, often attempting their moves in an embarrassing fashion.

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