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Steady Hendon Hooker paying off for Tennessee offense

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The veteran is keeping the chains moving.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

After a few bumpy games, Tennessee’s offense seems to be settling in. Performances against Pittsburgh, even Florida in spots, and then the onslaught in Missouri have given us some tangible evidence that Josh Heupel knows what he’s doing.

So what changed from week one after that uncomfortable Bowling Green game? The quarterback, of course. Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker took over after Joe Milton was injured, and the offense has gone from there. Efficiency has been the name of the game as Hooker has continued to find his footing.

Hooker didn’t win the job in fall camp, but his performance since being inserted into the lineup has forced the staff’s hand. Josh Heupel seemingly shut down any quarterback talk on Monday, finally naming Hooker the starting quarterback, confirming what everyone already assumed.

“He’s been better taking care of the football with the ball in his hands,” head coach Josh Heupel said on Monday. “I think as much as anything, great comfort and understanding what we’re doing, the tempo. He has been really in control of what’s going on at the line of scrimmage, been really good with his eyes and that’s allowed him to be really decisive with the football. He was extremely accurate the other day. A lot of them stems from eyes in the right place. Seeing things really clearly and allows you to get your body in the right spot.”

The numbers haven’t been eye-popping for Hooker. In fact, you could probably break out the dreaded game-manager label — but he’s been really good at it. Ten touchdown passes against just one interception tells the story, and a 68.5 percent completion percentage has kept the chains moving for the most part. That’s something Tennessee was missing with Milton, and they’ve fixed it with Hooker.

Another bonus of Hooker? His rushing ability. He’s got some Josh Dobbs to him — some toughness, elusiveness and ability between the tackles.

“He is a certifiable dude in terms of toughness,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said Wednesday. “He runs the ball extremely hard, sometimes if you ask (Joey Halzle) he needs to be smarter in how he is finishing runs. I think, from the outside looking in, it’s awesome that he is diving head-first sometimes, like a little bit chaotic there, that’s your quarterback on the ground. I think he brings a spark, and the way he plays, everybody else around him sees that and they feed off of him.”

Hooker has added 216 yards on the ground so far, helping to spark a Tennessee rushing attack that went off last weekend against Missouri. As Heupel said last week, the run game is the element that makes the entire offense tick, so keeping those run lanes open is a key, and Hooker certainly adds something else to worry about for opposing defenses.

Tennessee’s schedule really ramps up after the South Carolina matchup. Games against Alabama, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Georgia loom large, with two of those coming on the road. One bonus of starting Hooker is that he’s been there and done all of that. Hooker started 15 games at Virginia Tech and appeared in 23 total. He’ll be entering his 27th game on Saturday against South Carolina.

That experience might just be valuable in the coming weeks, especially when Tennessee heads to Tuscaloosa and Lexington.

“I was more proud, honestly, the week before at Florida where he made really good decisions in tough third down situations,” Golesh said. “Taking care of the football, getting it to the right spots. That to me, in a hostile environment where it was chaotic and there was adversity on every single drive where you saw him kind of flash, listen, this is the game guy on every single drive. I mean, we got down in the fourth quarter and it was still the same guy on every single drive.

“When you know what you’re going to get from your quarterback, it makes it really, really simple in terms of: you know he’s going to execute the play to the best of his ability.”