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Just a cog in an offensive machine? No, Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker is much more

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There is a reason that Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker is a Heisman Trophy frontrunner and it’s not just because his head coach, Josh Heupel, may be an offensive wizard.

Sure, Heupel may get receivers open, but let’s not forget that Hooker still has to make the throws. Let’s also not forget that Hooker’s accuracy was regularly – and fairly – questioned in 2021 and early this season. So was his pocket presence. However, those are not concerns any longer. Hooker deserves considerable credit for that.

“He is doing a really good job of being invested completely into the game plan on our end, and also understanding what he is getting defensively,” Tennessee quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle said. “So, what you are seeing when the stuff that we do set up is not there, is him getting us right a lot of times on the back end of that.”

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In other words, Hooker is coaching on the field. It’s no coincidence that he wants to be a coach when his playing days are done. There’s also this notion that Hooker just makes one read and throws, like a machine. While there is some truth to that, Hooker also makes some decisions in the pocket better than he ever has before. 

“You see him getting into his second and third read,” Halzle said. “You are seeing him check plays at the line of scrimmage, then the defense check out, and he gets to check off of the check. So, he is doing a lot of pre-snap operation at a really high level, which is why he is being extremely successful post-snap.” 

Here’s another thing you should know about Hooker. He’s the same guy on the field as he is when he’s super chill at a press conference podium.

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“I have not seen him lose his cool,” Halzle said. “He is extremely competitive, so you are going to see him compete at a really high level.

It is fiery, like when you see him score on that option that he ran the other day. He was jacked up going in there, but he comes over to the sideline, jumps on the headset, and he is right back down to himself. 

“He has the fire and the competitiveness that you want, but it never takes him to the point where it makes him play outside of his game.”  

Hooker’s evolution hasn’t just happened. It’s ongoing. Halzle said there is a natural tendency for a quarterback in Hooker’s position to be too aggressive. Yes, that is possible in a Heupel-coached offense. Hooker has avoided that. He has thrown just four interceptions in his last 522 attempts. That’s ridiculously good.

“A lot of guys start to get greedy, and you are not seeing that from him at all,” Halzle said. “You are seeing him check the ball down. You are seeing him find his tight ends, his backs. You are seeing him get to comebacks, all that type of stuff, when sometimes it would be easy just to drop back and try to throw it as far as you can to UT receiver Jalin (Hyatt). 

“But he is not just launching the ball when he does it, when he is taking his shots downfield. It is calculated, it has made sense to him, and that is why you are seeing the completion percentage down the field at such a high clip, because he is not throwing it for the sake of throwing it. He is throwing it when it makes sense.”  

Hooker is the only quarterback in the SEC with a completion percentage above 70-percent. He is currently sitting at 71.2-percent, which is 10th best in the nation.

“I think with Hendon, his numbers are speaking for themselves right now,” Halzle said. “He’s been in a lot of big games this year and it doesn’t look like any big game has been too big for him. You haven’t seen him shy away from the moment. 

“You’ve seen him step up, and every time we’ve gone against a ranked team at home or on the road, he’s stepped up and had one of his best performances of the year. The level of competition he’s playing in this league, I think people respect the fact that he’s putting up these kinds of numbers against this kind of competition.” 

Heupel may go on to become the greatest offensive coach in the history of the SEC. He may win multiple championships. However, he’ll never have a quarterback like Hooker. 

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