It’s hard not to hold your breath when Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker breaks out of the pocket and dashes downfield. After all, he’s the most important player on the Vols’ roster.
It’s easy to simply say that Hooker should never run, that he should just sit back in the pocket and rely on his receivers to make the big plays downfield. However, Hooker staying put in the pocket is not going to happen.
“One of the things about Hendon is he’s the fiercest competitor I’ve ever been around,” Tennessee quarterback coach Joey Halzle said. “He is intelligent about the way he carries himself. Maybe there’s some times where he could have protected himself, but there are plays that he makes where if he’s just trying to protect himself, he doesn’t make those plays.
“So you can never take that away from a guy, who they are as a person and he’ll keep growing like that.”
Halzle’s comments about Hooker are pretty strong. Sure, Halzle, 36, is a young coach. However, he’s coached quarterbacks alongside UT head coach Josh Heupel for well over a decade. Young or not, he knows quarterbacks and he knows what a true competitor looks like.
“Hendon is playing at an extremely high level right now,” Halzle said. “He’s earned everything he’s getting. That guy puts more time and preparation in than anyone I’ve every been around. Your seeing all that pay off and it didn’t start in season.
“It started in January when he decided to come back and make an effort to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country. Right now, what you’re seeing is the fruit of that labor. He is playing at an extremely high level right now.”
Statistics certainly support that claim. Hooker’s passer rating, 183, is the highest in the SEC by almost ten points, over Kentucky’s Will Levis. Hooker ranks sixth in passer rating in the nation. Then, there’s that running ability. Hooker has carried the ball 35 times this season for 175 yards and three touchdowns.
“There’s a lot of guys that can throw it efficiently which he can, but what makes him scary is at any point he can get out and go,” Halzle said. “He’s one of best ball carriers on the field so you’ve got that combination together. That’s why he’s one of the elite players in the country right now.”
Hooker’s throwing and running ability will be on display against LSU on Saturday. However, his calm demeanour might be his most important attribute for the Vols. Tennessee’s high tempo offense can also help manage the crowd in Tiger Stadium.
“It’s going to be a loud environment,” Halzle said. “There’s going to be some points when it’s difficult to communicate. That’s why you work it all week, but you don’t have the ebb and the flow when the crowd knows the huddle is breaking and it can start building up.
“If you’re pushing your tempo and you’re playing ahead of the chains, it does help with that, but you still can’t take any lax in preparation for it because it’s going to be a loud crazy environment.”
Certainly, “loud and crazy” would not describe Hooker. While some players may shy from a wild environment, Hooker has shown he can handle the noise that comes with playing in big games.
“Once you step inside the white lines and it’s 11-on-11, you go play ball,” Halzle said. “Whether you’re prepared or not, that’s where it shows up. Some people do get big eyed and the moment gets a little bit too big when you get in the crazy environment.
“That is not how he is wired at all. That’s why you’re seeing the same guy at home (or) on the road. It doesn’t matter. He’s the same dude day in and day out.”
And that “dude” is going to run when he sees fit.