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Countdown to kickoff — Player showcase: Hendon Hooker

Hendon Hooker has become the man in Knoxville, so what does he have in store for an encore?

Nikos Frazier / Journal & Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

As we move closer to the long awaited opening kickoff of the 2022 season, there’s a certain cautious optimism surrounding the Tennessee Volunteer football program. Albeit amidst a slew of heavy sanctions that were smacked down on the Vols program for the short lived Jeremy Pruitt era, Josh Heupel putting together a top 10 2023 recruiting class, highlighted by landing five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava, has fans excited for the future of the program.

2022 is also a year of promise for the Vols as they look to build off of the record setting success that is the 2021 offense. Heupel’s offense moved at breakneck speed, taking the sludgy 2020 offense and flipping it on its head. Though the 7-and-6 final record may not indicate the path of Tennessee’s football program very well, one man shined brighter than almost any other Rocky Top signal caller has in program history, and his success could be indicative of things to come. That man is Hendon Hooker.

September 1 is just around the corner, so as we move toward week one, we are going to take a look at some of the key players for the Vols continuing their momentum from a season ago. We are starting with the Vols quarterback for one reason: he is the most valuable player to come through the doors of Tennessee in well over a decade and decided to bless us with his presence for his graduate year, choosing Rocky Top over the NFL Draft.

From a little-thought-of transfer from Virginia Tech to fighting for snaps with Michigan transfer Joe Milton, Hooker didn’t fully take the reins of the offense until week two following a Milton injury halfway through Tennessee’s matchup with Pitt.

Though the Vols scored 72 points over their first two games, the offense was able to mask its deficiencies behind playing Bowling Green week one, but it was clear as soon as Hooker stepped in for Milton against Pitt that he was ‘the guy’, and the offense started humming just a little bit differently.

Following a putrid 2020 season where a 3-and-7 Vols squad averaged 21.5 points per game under Jeremy Pruitt, Josh Heupel ushered in a new era, bringing a much needed infusion of offense to Knoxville. With Hooker under center, the Vols scored a school record 511 points, good for 39.3 per game, falling a single point short of 40.3 set back in 1993.

Hooker’s dual threat skills complemented Heupel’s fast break offensive style to perfection. He finished behind Jabari Small in rushing yards on the team while leading the SEC in adjusted yards per pass attempt (11.3) and touchdown to interception ratio (10.33). He was as efficient as any QB in the country, finishing second in the country in touchdown percentage (10.23%) and third in interception percentage (0.99%). Oh, and he set the single season school record for passer rating at 181.4.

From the word go in week three, Tennessee’s offense took off like a rocket ship fueled by Hooker. Over the next four games, Tennessee’s offense averaged 498.8 yards per game, going 3-1 in the stretch against Tennessee Tech, at Florida, at Missouri, and against South Carolina. Florida was the only game they fell short in. On his own, Hooker was as good as anyone in the country. As you can see here, from week three to the end of the season, no one in the SEC had a higher PPA per play (collegefootballdata.com’s predicted points added per play metric) than the Vols and only Georgia saw a higher success rate on offense.

Playing turnover-free football, Hooker threw for 870 yards and 14 total touchdowns, 11 coming through the air, in that span, and the cold that plagued Tennessee’s offense for the previous four seasons was finally decongested.

Hooker complimented Heupel’s style of offense incredibly well. Using screens and short passes as a means of a running game let Hooker and the receiving duo of Cedric Tillman and Velus Jones Jr. take the top off defenses all year long.

Unfortunately, the gauntlet of the SEC caught up to the Vols, especially the defense. Hooker continued his standout play, but it wasn’t enough as Tennessee fell to Ole Miss and Alabama in consecutive weeks.

In previous years, these are the times where we’d tend to see Tennessee teams fold. However, as Hooker and this Vols offense showed all year, this isn’t that kind of team. He responded with his best game of the regular season in Lexington against rival Kentucky in a 45-42 win. Hooker threw for 316 yards and 4 touchdowns on just 20 attempts without an interception, out-dueling Will Levis for the win.

The Purdue game will get overlooked simply because of the result, but Hooker capped off his incredible, historic season with a 5 touchdown performance in the Music City Bowl, once again without an interception.

Looking at this season, all any Vols fan can ask for is simply Hendon Hooker being himself and staying healthy and the rest will take care of itself with the offense. That being said, there were a couple areas of concern with Hooker last season. The primary issues were pocket presence and fumbles, and these two problems tended to coincide with one another.

Hooker often held onto the ball too long seeking the big play, and while it worked more often than not, it also created a handful of cough ups and poorly timed turnovers. Tennessee’s offensive line struggled to both stay healthy and protect Hooker, so you can imagine how poorly their struggles to block combined with Hooker’s tendency to hold onto the ball meshed. The upside here is that Hooker doesn’t throw interceptions, so if he can clean up his game in the pocket, the fumbles going away are likely to follow suit.

Asking for a repeat of the incredibly high level of performance from Hooker again in 2022 is almost unfair to the fifth-year senior. In a perfect world, Hooker won’t need to put on his Superman cape as often this year due to the defense hopefully taking a necessary step forward, but his emergence as one of the better quarterbacks in the nation has been as unexpected as it is welcomed.

A fight with COVID almost took away Hendon Hooker’s football career. Now he’s thriving in ways many saw unimaginable. He’s become the face of Tennessee’s hopeful program turnaround, and if you’re Tennessee, you couldn’t ask for a better player or person to do so. Hooker is the perfect player to lead this team in 2022 as he gets set for his swan song in college football.

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