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AP photo by Keith Srakocic / Hendon Hooker runs the ball for Virginia Tech during a game at Pittsburgh last November. Hooker is now a graduate transfer at Tennessee and part of a three-man quarterback competition that could leave him sidelined in his final college season.

According to the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Educational Foundation, University of Tennessee redshirt senior Hendon Hooker is one of the best quarterbacks in college football, even if he has yet to take a snap for the Volunteers.

But is he even the best QB at UT?

Largely on the strength of his numbers at Virginia Tech — which he graduated from with a degree in public relations — Hooker is on the foundation's early list of candidates to win its 2021 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, which is given annually to the top senior or upperclassman quarterback set to graduate with his class.

Alabama's Mac Jones won it last year. LSU's Joe Burrows took home the award in 2019. Peyton Manning is Tennessee's only previous Unitas winner, receiving the award in 1997.

And judging from Hooker's stats with the Hokies — nine passing touchdowns and nine rushing touchdowns in 2020 alone — he would seem a reasonable candidate among the long preseason list of 63 quarterbacks, including fellow Southeastern Conference players Connor Bazelak (Missouri), Matt Corral (Ole Miss), JT Daniels (Georgia), Emory Jones (Florida) and Bo Nix (Auburn). Also on the list is former UT quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, now at Washington State.

All of which makes the prospect that Hooker could wind up as low as third on the Vols' depth chart behind returning sophomore Harrison Bailey and fellow transfer Joe Milton even more bizarre.

And let's just say that's how it ends up. Let's say new Tennessee coach Josh Heupel — who's known throughout the sport as something of a quarterback whisperer, able to adapt his high-flying offenses to his best QB's skill set — views both Bailey and Milton as superior options to Hooker. Brian Maurer has already entered the NCAA transfer portal. If Hooker's third, what then?

Could he enter the transfer portal again? Should he be allowed to? Or is this one of those scenarios in which you pay your dime and take your chances?

It's doubtful Heupel promised Hooker the starting job, at least one hopes not if he winds up naming someone else. It's also doubtful Hooker would be happy running third in his final year of college football.

But one also suspects this situation could play out more and more in this transfer portal age. The grass will always appear greener somewhere else until it's not.

Which brings us back to the original question: If Hooker transfers to a school for one year and isn't good enough to get on the field, should he be allowed a mulligan? The current rules state your second transfer carries a mandatory one-year sit-out penalty, but since the NCAA seems intent on letting student-athletes do anything else they want largely free of penalty these days, why not that, too?

You could treat it as an injury — to the psyche. Your feelings are hurt. Your self-esteem. Junior needs a hug. And. One. More. Fresh. Start.

No, it wouldn't teach much personal responsibility. But neither does the transfer rule that makes you immediately eligible. And let's face it: Hooker only came to Knoxville to play, whether he was guaranteed a starting spot or not.

So if the school is willing to sign a waiver that it believes he deserves one more free season elsewhere as long as he continues to earnestly pursue his education, what's the harm?

Merely consider what happened a few days ago at Kentucky with former Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood. Having decided that Penn State transfer Will Levis would be a better fit for the starting quarterback spot than Gatewood, a former four-star recruit in the 2018 class, Wildcats coach Mark Stoops quickly announced that decision, thus allowing Gatewood time to transfer without penalty, which he did.

"If I knew this was the decision we were going to make, I wanted to give people like Joey the opportunity to transfer and to go somewhere," Stoops said. "If you wait another week, then he's trapped here."

Because of Stoops, Gatewood was able to reunite with his former Auburn head coach, Gus Malzahn, at Central Florida, where he should be eligible immediately, pending NCAA approval.

Hooker is already past that possibility, because the Vols began fall semester classes this past Wednesday, which means he's already officially on the hook for the term as an active student. Kentucky's classes don't begin until this Monday, which allowed for Gatewood's immediate transfer.

But in these crazy times on all fronts, would it be so wrong for a player such as Hooker to have the same opportunity as Gatewood, regardless of when classes begin, as long as the season hasn't begun? Yes, it's quite possible Hooker winds up the starter and none of this matters. Perhaps he'll win the Golden Arm Award, too.

Maybe it's Bailey or Milton who will wind up in the transfer portal.

At the start of preseason camp, Hooker said he transferred to Volsville because he "wanted to play on a bigger stage" and the SEC "is the best football in the nation."

Sitting on a bigger stage and watching the nation's best football from the bench is something entirely different, however. Especially for a grad transfer.

It's time to let players such as Hooker and Gatewood go explore their playing options without penalty, hopeful they'll find the stage size that best suits their talents rather than their egos.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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