ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee fifth-year senior quarterback Hendon Hooker was named Monday as SEC offensive player of the week after throwing for 316 yards and four touchdowns in Saturday night's 45-42 win at Kentucky.

Given that injuries will always be a part of college football, perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Stetson Bennett IV and Hendon Hooker are the likely starting quarterbacks for this Saturday's game between Kirby Smart's top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs and Josh Heupel's improving Tennessee Volunteers inside Neyland Stadium.

Now, for the shock.

In a season that began with Alabama's Bryce Young, Georgia's JT Daniels and Mississippi's Matt Corral generating conversation in the Heisman Trophy race, it's Bennett and Hooker who are tops in the Southeastern Conference when it comes to passing efficiency.

Bennett, a former walk-on who took a detour to Jones County (Mississippi) Junior College, and Hooker, a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, rank third and fourth nationally in efficiency and arguably are coming off their finest efforts of the season. The 6-foot-4, 218-pound Hooker completed 15 of 20 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns in Saturday night's 45-42 thriller over Kentucky at Kroger Field, a performance that on Monday earned him SEC offensive player of the week.

Hooker had a 75-yard touchdown pass to JaVonta Payton and a 72-yarder to Velus Jones Jr. within his first four attempts, adding to Tennessee's mammoth haul of 46 plays of 30 yards or longer in six league games. The Vols had 20 such plays in 10 conference contests last year.

"I'm kind of just taking each play one at a time and playing the next play," Hooker said. "I don't know if you can really get used to scoring and being that efficient at a fast pace like we have. We're just going to try and do that each game."

Hooker replaced injured starter Joe Milton during the second game against Pittsburgh and never relinquished the role due to his consistent play, and it's been the same story down in Athens. Bennett started five games last season before being replaced by the more heralded Daniels, but Daniels battled a lat injury throughout this past October and remained the backup to Bennett in last Saturday's 43-6 rout of Missouri.

some text
Georgia photo by Tony Walsh / Georgia fifth-year senior quarterback Stetson Bennett IV is the Southeastern Conference's highest-rated quarterback entering this weekend's game at Tennessee.

The Tigers put the pressure on the 5-11, 190-pound Bennett to beat them, and Bennett responded with a 13-of-19 showing for 255 yards and two touchdowns.

"Missouri's game plan was to not let us run the ball," Bennett said, "so they were popping backers and had low safeties. When teams do that, we have to be explosive. That's how we score points."

Bennett's efficiency clip of 197.34, which trails only Coastal Carolina's Grayson McCall and Oklahoma's Caleb Williams, is based off his 80 completions in 120 attempts (66.7%) for 1,412 yards with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. Hooker, by comparison, is 129-of-186 passing (69.4%) for 1,894 yards with 21 touchdowns and only two picks for a 190.01 rating.

The reason Hooker has those superior numbers but Bennett owns the better efficiency rating is the metric of yards per attempt, with Bennett averaging 11.8 and Hooker 10.2.

Then there is the rushing element that each quarterback possesses. Hooker actually leads the Vols with 113 carries that have produced 458 yards and four touchdowns, while Bennett only has 27 carries but is averaging an impressive 7.1 yards per rush.

"Hendon is a tremendous athlete and is really hard to tackle," Smart said. "He is big and physical with a strong arm. This past Saturday was probably our poorest game in terms of tackling and assignment football. Someone would go into someone else's gap, and it's never good when you do that."

Said Heupel: "Stetson can get out there and make plays with his feet, so at the end of the day, we've got to do a great job of pressing the pocket and have lane integrity."

Investigation reply

Heupel was asked Monday about the recent announcement that Tennessee's investigation into its football program under predecessor Jeremy Pruitt has been closed and that the school will not impose a bowl ban.

"I've said it from the time I got here that I really believe this was going to be a speed bump for our program and that the kids who are here and that we're going to recruit will have a chance to go compete for championships," Heupel said. "I fully believe that, and I think it's neat that our university found out about what was going on and reported it and was transparent from the very beginning. For our kids, I think it's really important that we move forward."

 

Happy returns

Kickoff returns are becoming few and far between, but the Vols had two in Lexington that ended near midfield.

After Kentucky took a 21-14 lead late in the second quarter, Jones fielded the kickoff at the Tennessee 2 and raced out to the 33, which became the 48 when the Wildcats were flagged for a horse-collar tackle. In the third quarter, after the Wildcats went up 28-24, Jimmy Holiday took a short kick at his 18 and ran 33 yards to Kentucky's 49.

Tennessee would score touchdowns on both of those short-field possessions.

"Our return unit did a great job of adjusting on Saturday, because their guy had like 91% of his kickoffs go for touchbacks," Heupel said. "We were able to create a big play with Velus and got the ball out to the 50 with the penalty, and then Jimmy and our front line did a great job adjusting to a sky kick, and he brings it out to the 50.

"Those were huge momentum and field position plays."

 

Odds and ends

Tennessee senior right tackle Cade Mays was named SEC offensive lineman of the week after playing every snap against Kentucky without allowing a quarterback pressure or committing a penalty. ... Smart on the health of Daniels after Saturday's game, which was his first since Sept. 25: "He seemed fine. He didn't take any major hits, and I thought he did a good job of having command of the offense." ... Smart is hopeful of having left tackle Jamaree Salyer (foot) this week, while Heupel is optimistic running backs Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small and tight end Jacob Warren will play after getting injured in Lexington.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT