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Tennessee football: Josh Heupel has faith in his QB to handle LSU crowd

When Tennessee football visits the LSU Tigers Saturday, the matchup will be a battle between two highly efficient mobile quarterbacks. Jayden Daniels leads his team in rushing and hasn’t thrown an interception.

On the other side, Hendon Hooker is emerging as a Heisman candidate for the Vols. He also hasn’t thrown an interception, but this will be his first time dealing with an LSU crowd. Josh Heupel appears to trust his quarterback.

“We’ve been able to, since Hendon’s been our starting quarterback, handle it in a fairly positive way and been pretty efficient with it,” Heupel said Wednesday at the SEC Teleconference. “That will be a big part of the game, a big challenge for us on Saturday, for sure.”

Note: Josh Heupel portion begins at the 45:45 mark.

Since taking over as the Vols’ starter, Hooker has traveled to The Swamp, Lexington, Ky., and Bryant-Denny Stadium. His only win among those, though, was at the Kentucky Wildcats.

Facing the Missouri Tigers on the road in an afternoon game wasn’t much of a test. Honestly, neither was a trip to the Pittsburgh Panthers this year given the fact that Vol fans packed that city.

Still, where Hooker has been tested this year is coming through in the clutch, including an overtime win at Pitt. Combine that with his experience at other SEC stadiums, and he should be well-prepared.

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“Our football team knows that you’ve got to play for 60 minutes,” Heupel said. “These guys have been down multiple scores in games and found a way to win a ball game at the end or make it extremely difficult at the end, so you’ve got to play for 60 minutes against this football team. They compete, they have confidence and they have good players.”

In addition to experience in the clutch and at raucous stadiums, Hooker has experience facing Brian Kelly. Twice when he was with the Virginia Tech Hokies, his teams faced the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

Now, to be fair, Hooker never played in those games, even if it gave him experience preparing for Kelly. Also, as Heupel noted, things are much different now about facing Kelly.

“Obviously the coordinator is different in where he’s coming from, so schematically, there’s some things that are different that we have to prepare for,” he said. “One of Hendon’s great abilities is just trying to focus on the week and understands that the preparation is going to be critical for him.”

Faith in Hooker will be crucial for Tennessee football too given how efficient Daniels can be. Two weeks ago, Hooker saved the Vols against Florida as Anthony Richardson torched them.

He might have to do the same thing in Death Valley. Daniels has nine total touchdowns, 1,236 yards and 0 picks. Hooker has 11 total touchdowns, 1,368 yards and 0 picks. Heupel was high on both for their lack of interceptions.

“It tells you that they’re seeing things and operating, being really efficient,” he said. “It tells you that they’re being accurate with the football and have some maturity and have the ability to take care of the football, too.”

Where both are also similar is that they got banged up recently. Hooker suffered an upper body injury against the Florida Gators. Daniels suffered a leg injury last week against the Auburn Tigers.

To be fair, Hooker started balling out after that injury, and Tennessee football had an off-week for him to recover. As a result, they should still have the advantage.

For his part, Heupel is not letting the excitement of playing at LSU get the best of him either. He noted he hasn’t really thought about the uniqueness of the matchup.

“For us, this is a big game because it’s the next one on the schedule,” he said. “Playing down there is always difficult, so it’s a big challenge for our program.”

A huge boost for Tennessee football is the fact that the game’s at Noon ET, which will be 11 a.m. for LSU players. Hooker’s experience only further helps with that.

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