Vols humming offensively but want to keep Hooker upright

Tennessee Athletics photo / Junior center Cooper Mays on Monday became Tennessee’s fourth different player this season to earn the Southeastern Conference’s offensive lineman of the week.

It's difficult to nitpick a Tennessee offense that leads college football with 543.7 yards and 47.4 points per game.

Heck, in the most basic of statistics, the Volunteers average a staggering 7.27 yards per snap.

Yet sixth-year senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Hendon Hooker has been picking himself off the turf more in recent weeks. The Vols have allowed 11 sacks in their past three games, matching the 11 they surrendered throughout their first seven contests.

"We view it as something to get better at," junior center Cooper Mays said this week in a news conference. "We've been letting him get hit too much. We've got to shore up some things as a whole group and figure out how to protect him. He's the forefront of our offense, and we've got to keep hands off him at all times."

Hooker was sacked six times in Tennessee's 27-13 loss at Georgia on Nov. 5, when the Vols were held without a touchdown until fewer than five minutes remained. Tennessee bounced back last weekend with a program-record 724 yards of total offense in a 66-24 drubbing of Missouri, but the Tigers did get to Hooker on three occasions.

To be clear, the Vols are significantly improved in this category since last season, when opponents tallied 44 sacks over 13 games.

"Certainly we want to keep Hendon as clean as possible," second-year coach Josh Heupel said Wednesday during the Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference. "I don't know if concern is the right word, but you're always aware of the position you're putting your offensive line in and in trying to get the ball out on time. It takes everybody. Your wide receivers have to go win and be in the right spot at the right time, too, and Hendon has to read it. All those things play into it.

"There were some things we didn't do well, obviously, a couple weeks ago, but there has been good personnel, too, so I don't want to take anything away from other teams that we've played. There are some things we haven't been as clean in that we have an opportunity to correct."

Mays on Monday became the fourth Tennessee player to earn SEC offensive lineman of the week, joining right guard Javontez Spraggins (after the Florida game), right tackle Darnell Wright (after the Alabama and Kentucky contests), and left guard Jerome Carvin (after UT Martin). The Vols have produced five of the SEC's 11 weekly honors up front offensively and were named this week among the nine semifinalists for the Joe Moore Award, which goes to college football's top offensive line.

"All of them continue to change their bodies, so they're stronger and playing with better technique," Heupel said. "They have a better understanding of what we're doing in year two and the fundamentals that come along with that — their football knowledge, their IQ of what we're doing but then also what they're seeing from the defense. We've had the ability for four out of the five guys to play consistently.

"The left tackle position has been nicked up a little bit here and there, but it's been pretty much a two-man rotation. You combine it being year two, their knowledge and the consistency that we've had, and those guys have been able to play at a really high level."


Shouldering the load

The emergence of freshman running back Dylan Sampson during the third quarter of Saturday's thrashing of Missouri may have occurred at a very needed time.

With 10 games down and two to go this regular season, starting running back Jabari Small is battling a nagging shoulder injury that can affect his carries. The 5-foot-11, 213-pound junior from Memphis rushed 21 times in the win over Kentucky but had just three carries the following week at Georgia.

Small had nine rushes for 54 yards and the game's first touchdown against Mizzou.

"I think it's game to game," Vols running backs coach Jerry Mack said this week during a news conference. "Sometimes he takes a hit on it that's unfortunate to where he can't finish the game. Last week, there were no hits like that. He was able to finish the game and do well. I think one of the things for him is just to continue to develop strength in that shoulder.

"We have some things in the training room and strength and conditioning program that are helping him gain that strength within that shoulder. Sometimes if he doesn't finish, he's right back in practice on Monday, rehabbing and doing the things that he's supposed to."

Small, who said this week that he never had shoulder issues while at Briarcrest Christian, has rushed 122 times this season for 537 yards (4.4 per carry) and nine touchdowns.

"It's a little frustrating, but it's there, and it's something I have to play through," Small said. "It's not so much about having to make it stronger as it is just trying to protect it as best I can."


Odds and ends

The Vols have scored 474 points and need 38 to surpass last year's single-season program standard of 511. ... Hooker and junior receiver Jalin Hyatt were named Wednesday as semifinalists for the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award. ... Tennessee is closing a regular season with two consecutive road games for the first time since 1939.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.