Hendon Hooker a 'certifiable dude' as tough Tennessee quarterback

Tennessee's transfer quarterback among the nation's most efficient

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee fifth-year senior quarterback Hendon Hooker began this season as Joe Milton's backup but now ranks among the nation's top five in passing efficiency.

He didn't win the job as Tennessee's starting quarterback during spring practice or before the season opener against Bowling Green.

He's got it now.

Hendon Hooker, the graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, has left Tennessee's quarterback competition in the rear-view mirror as the Volunteers reach the midway mark of their regular season with Saturday's home game against South Carolina. Also in the past is the discussion of the quarterback position being a liability for the Vols, with Hooker currently ranking fifth nationally in passing efficiency.

"Through spring and through camp, there was a calm demeanor about him," Tennessee first-year offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said Tuesday in a news conference. "There was a sense of collectedness and a sense of maturity. Good or bad, whatever happened, the response was always the same. It's really exactly what you want from a player, and it's what players want from coaches - be the same guy every day.

"That's what Hendon is, and he has really, really been efficient in how he's played."

Hooker arrived in Knoxville having played in 29 career games at Virginia Tech with 17 starts. The 6-foot-4, 218-pounder from Greensboro, North Carolina, was the elder statesmen of a spring competition that included Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer, but the dynamic of that race changed after the Orange & White game when Michigan grad transfer Joe Milton joined the mix.

Milton earned the start against Bowling Green and guided the Vols to a 38-6 victory, with Hooker entering late in the opener to complete one pass for 5 yards.

In the second quarter of the second game against Pittsburgh, however, an erratic Milton was injured and Hooker seized on the opportunity. The fifth-year senior completed 15 of 21 attempts for 188 yards with two touchdowns and a costly interception in the fourth quarter, but that remains his only aerial gaffe of the season.

Hooker has completed 61 of 89 attempts (68.5%) for 838 yards and 10 touchdowns, and he was exemplary in last Saturday's 62-24 shellacking of Missouri at Faurot Field. He completed 15 of 19 passes for 225 yards and three touchdowns while rushing 15 times for 80 yards and a score on an offense that racked up 683 yards, and he was asked afterward if that was his favorite performance.

"Playing football, every game is my favorite game," Hooker said. "I'm just enjoying it, and I'm extremely blessed to be out there playing. These guys rallying around me has been a special moment.

"We're just going to keep pushing forward from here."

Golesh pointed out Tuesday that Tennessee's ability to run the ball effectively last Saturday gave Hooker the coziness of multiple second-and-2 and second-and-3 situations from which to have fun. He added that he was equally impressed with Hooker the previous weekend at Florida and how he made really good decisions on third-and-long plays in that eventual 38-14 loss.

"He's been able to hand the ball off when he's supposed to, and he's been able to throw the ball when he's supposed to," Golesh said. "He's also given us a really good element in the run game in terms of him being able to run the ball. What you didn't know through spring and summer, because they're in a red jersey and you can't hit them, is how tough he is.

"He is a certifiable dude in terms of toughness. He just brings a spark in the way he plays, and everybody around him sees that, and they feed off of him."

Sophomore struggles

In last Saturday's dismantling of Mizzou, the veteran receiver trio of sixth-year senior Velus Jones Jr., redshirt junior Cedric Tillman and fifth-year senior JaVonta Payton combined on 12 catches for 187 yards, with all three reaching the end zone.

Two promising sophomores, Jalin Hyatt and Jimmy Calloway, failed to crack the box score.

"Those guys are both young guys who have a bunch of talent and a bunch of ability," Golesh said. "Jalin Hyatt has gotten closer to getting his process right to prepare, but he's still learning how to play in this offense. I'm absolutely not down on Jalin Hyatt. He is going to continue to grow and has a really bright future here.

"Jimmy Calloway is in just his second year as a receiver, and he's still figuring it all out. He's going to be an electric player around here at some point as well."

Stuffing the run

Although they were victimized by Florida quarterback Emory Jones to the tune of 15 carries for 144 yards on Sept. 25 in Gainesville, the Vols enter this week's game ranked 24th nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (104.0) and 22nd in yards allowed per carry (3.13).

"I didn't even know the statistics, to be honest with you," Vols defensive coordinator Tim Banks said Tuesday. "We try to live game by game and quarter by quarter. At the end of the day, we try to play to players' strengths, whatever it is."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.