Hooker, fellow Vols seniors seek to complete perfect season at Neyland

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker will play his 15th and final game inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday, having begun his two-year career with the Volunteers as Joe Milton’s backup and ending it as a potential Heisman Trophy finalist.

Hendon Hooker's first game as a Tennessee quarterback inside Neyland Stadium contained one pass for 5 yards as Joe Milton's backup in a 38-6 win over Bowling Green.

His final contest in Neyland occurs Saturday afternoon against Missouri, with the sixth-year senior who transferred from Virginia Tech having established himself as the most efficient passer in program history and as a likely finalist for this season's Heisman Trophy.

"To put it into words, I think, is really tough," Volunteers coach Josh Heupel said of Hooker's two-year impact. "He has been such a leader and such a dynamic playmaker, and he has been so consistent in the building. He is a huge part of the culture that we have from within the locker room and the ownership we have from within it.

"I don't think anyone inside of our program — players, coaches or our fans — would ever take anything from him for granted. We have a lot of football ahead of us, and we are excited to continue to compete down the home stretch with him."

The 6-foot-4, 218-pounder from Greensboro, North Carolina, is entering his 15th showing in Knoxville, having packed quite a bit into his two-year stint. The Vols were coming off a three-win season in 2020 when he arrived, and they are now No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings.

Tennessee is seeking to complete a 7-0 run through its home schedule, which would be the first such undefeated mark for the Vols since 2007.

"It's my last time in Neyland, and it's surreal," Hooker said. "It's bittersweet. I'll be excited to see a lot of my family members there who haven't had a chance to see me play since I was little or in high school. It's going to be a day for the family and a day for the Vols."

Tight end Princeton Fant, defensive tackle LaTrell Bumphus and linebacker Solon Page III are sixth-year seniors who signed with the Vols, so their first autumn in 2017 yielded the first eight-loss season in program history and the first 0-8 collapse in Southeastern Conference play. Four years into their respective careers, they had endured a 20-27 record and the firings of both Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt.

Tennessee's sixth-year seniors had never defeated Alabama or Florida until ending those streaks this season.

"It's going to be special for sure," Bumphus said. "It's like my third senior day. It's kind of surreal and I'm going to just soak it all in, enjoy it with my family and try and just take it all in. I don't want to let the moment go too fast, because it will be the last time I'll get to run through the 'T' in Neyland Stadium."

Heupel was emotional after last November's 45-21 victory over Vanderbilt in the regular-season finale when discussing how much the likes of Velus Jones Jr., JaVonta Payton, Cade Mays, Matthew Butler, Alontae Taylor and Theo Jackson had meant to the program in terms of serving as foundational pieces. This year's seniors are foundational pieces as well but obviously have tasted more success.

Tennessee has 16 players — including Hooker, Milton, Fant, Bumphus, Page, receiver Cedric Tillman, tight end Jacob Warren, punter Paxton Brooks and kicker Chase McGrath — who are playing this season having already graduated. Brooks is a fifth-year senior who used the NCAA's extra year of eligibility due to the coronavirus outbreak, with left guard Jerome Carvin and safety Trevon Flowers in that group as well.

"I've loved my time here, and I love this place," Carvin said. "This place has been great to me. Even going through the ups and downs, I would never change it. I'm happy to get to play with my guys, and I love all the teammates I've had."

Heupel isn't Tennessee's only coach who has expressed his gratitude this week. Given that the Vols have scored a program-record 408 points through nine games, it's obvious these seniors have also meant a lot to offensive coordinator Alex Golesh.

"Those guys are the reason this program — at least for us offensively — has been able to flip," Golesh said. "They fed off of Coach Heupel's message. They fed off of our message. They demanded greatness through the offseason, and they demanded greatness through practice.

"Those guys have been incredible. They have remained positive and remained the same way throughout the process, very much led by Hendon and what his approach has been. I can't give those guys enough credit."


Placed on hold

Freshman running back Dylan Sampson led all Tennessee rushers with 13 carries for 62 yards and a touchdown against UT Martin on Oct. 22, but the past two games against Kentucky and Georgia have resulted in just one rush for 1 yard.

"Sometimes it's just how the game unfolds that dictates whether or not a younger guy gets in," Heupel said Thursday in his final news conference of the week. "We've got great trust and confidence in him, and as a young player, I believe he gets better every single week. When he's in the ballgame, we're not going to do anything different or call anything different.

"We have great trust in him."

The 5-11, 190-pounder from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has appeared in six of nine games this season, rushing 34 times for 166 yards (4.9 per carry) and four touchdowns.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.