Red-hot Hendon Hooker enters Heisman picture for Vols

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker threw for 349 yards and rushed for 112 during Saturday’s 38-33 win over Florida inside Neyland Stadium.

Which is worse, having a frustrating relationship with the Heisman Trophy or no relationship at all?

Tennessee has experienced both of those worlds through the years when it comes to college football's top individual award, producing runner-up finishes with running backs Hank Lauricella (1951) and Johnny Majors (1956) and with quarterbacks Heath Shuler (1993) and Peyton Manning (1997). Majors finished second to Notre Dame's versatile Paul Hornung, the only Heisman winner ever to play on a team with a losing record, while Manning was second to Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson, the only defensive player to claim the honor.

Yet since Manning's result that still angers Volunteer State residents to this day, Tennessee has not had a single player finish in the top-10 of the Heisman balloting. That streak may be ending should Hendon Hooker continue to shine as the sixth-year senior quarterback did in Saturday's 38-33 win over Florida.

"Hendon was relentless in the way he competed and had a really efficient night," Vols second-year coach Josh Heupel said. "He was good in the pass game and was really good in the run game. He was decisive. He had six incompletions, but I don't know when they were, and he was just efficient and effective all night long.

"We're fortunate, and we love having Hendon as our trigger guy."

Hooker racked up a career-high 461 yards of total offense against the Gators, completing 22 of 28 passes for 349 yards and two touchdowns and rushing 13 times for 112 yards and a score. Since that riveting performance, which led Tennessee to just its second win over Florida in the last 18 tries, the 6-foot-4, 218-pound transfer from Virginia Tech has been named national player of the week by the Walter Camp Football Foundation and by the Senior Bowl.

The Southeastern Conference on Monday tabbed Hooker as its offensive player of the week.

On sportsbettingdime.com, Hooker has catapulted to fourth in the Heisman odds behind the quarterback trio of Ohio State's CJ Stroud, Alabama's Bryce Young and Southern California's Caleb Williams. Young won the award last season, becoming Alabama's fourth Heisman winner since 2009.

Heupel knows a little bit about Heisman heartache, finishing runner-up to Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke in the 2000 balloting by just 76 votes, nearly matching the 72-vote deficit Majors experienced against Hornung. Manning lost to Woodson by 272 votes.

"If you continue to win and continue to play the way that he is playing, you're going to get a lot of attention and deservedly so," Heupel said. "You have to be mature enough as an individual and as a football team to handle it, but he's special."

Through Tennessee's 4-0 start that includes two wins over ranked teams and a No. 8 position in this week's Associated Press poll, Hooker has completed 81 of 113 passes for 1,193 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. His 71.7% completion rate ranks 13th nationally, while his efficiency rating of 183.7 ranks eighth and his 10.6 yards per attempt ranks fifth.

Nobody nationally has thrown for more yards while remaining free of interceptions.

Tennessee's 34-27 overtime win at Pittsburgh on Sept. 10 was televised by ABC, and this past weekend's thriller against the Gators was on CBS. Tennessee's Oct. 8 game at LSU was picked up Monday by ESPN, which will have a noon Eastern kickoff, and remaining showdowns with Alabama (Oct. 15) and Georgia (Nov. 5) likely will be on CBS.

Kentucky's visit to Knoxville on Oct. 29 is a likely ESPN game since CBS is obligated to televise Georgia-Florida each year at 3:30 p.m., so Hooker isn't lacking for big audiences in which to perform.

"I didn't feel any spotlight or any stage," Hooker said of the Florida game, which was also accompanied by ESPN's "College GameDay" show. "It was us out there playing football like we do every day. We still have the same mission, and that's getting to Atlanta (as SEC East champions).

"We're just staying the course, coming in every day and getting better, and that's our goal."

Of course, every Heisman Trophy contender needs a nice highlight package, and Hooker added to his this past Saturday, especially with a 44-yard run midway through the third quarter on a play which started out like he would be sacked. Hooker has rushed 35 times for 175 yards and a 5.0-yard average, with that 44-yarder serving as his season long.

"I told him on the field after he busted that long run that he was special," Vols junior running back Jabari Small said. "I was in awe. I was like a fan. He's the same person every day and stays true to the game. He's always smiling, and he does everything right off the field, too.

"It's an honor to play with him. He's a great player."


Spraggins honored

Vols junior right guard Javontez Spraggins was named Monday as the SEC offensive lineman of the week after helping the Vols rack up 576 yards against Florida while averaging 8.2 yards per play.

In his 17th career start, Spraggins played all 70 snaps without allowing a sack, hit or pressure. For the season, the 6-foot-3, 325-pounder from East St. Louis, Illinois, has not allowed a sack or a quarterback hit in 264 snaps.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.