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VOL. 45 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 5, 2021

Vol QB Hooker happy for UT chance, not sure about staying for 2022

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker says he feels “blessed” just to be able to play.

-- Photo By Wade Payne | Ap

Hendon Hooker’s passion for football was never in question. But even the most dedicated athlete can use a reminder of how much the sport means.

That realization struck the Tennessee senior quarterback in September 2020 when, while still playing at Virginia Tech, he tested positive for COVID-19. He received a heart screening after he was released from quarantine, but the tests uncovered a potential heart issue that was unrelated to COVID.

Hooker feared he might never play football again. But after a brief period of worry, the North Carolina native was given the all-clear. The health scare filled Hooker with renewed appreciation for the opportunity to be on the field.

“It really just opened my eyes to show me how blessed I am,” Hooker says. “Really just gave me the thought that I shouldn’t put anything other than God and my family before football. Just because I’ve put in so much work and have so much love for the game that I shouldn’t take it for granted.”

Hooker decided to get a fresh start after the 2020 season and transferred to Tennessee. UT head coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired 10 days after Hooker’s arrival.

Hooker stayed the course and says he never second-guessed his decision. Once Josh Heupel was hired, Hooker went to work learning Heupel’s uptempo system.

He was passed over for the starting job at the start of the season, but took advantage of an injury to Joe Milton III to get time behind center.

Hooker hasn’t given the Vols a reason to switch back. He’s lifted the UT offense to greater heights as the Vols (4-4, 2-3 SEC) return from their open week to play at Kentucky (6-2, 4-2) Saturday.

Hooker has completed 68.3% of his passes (114 of 167) for 1,578 yards with 17 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He’s rushed for 416 yards and four touchdowns.

He also ranks fourth in the nation among FBS quarterbacks in passer efficiency (179.9).

“I think for Hendon, he’s a great example of a guy that comes in, buys into a culture, has some maturity, has grown into a really good football leader inside of our locker room,” Heupel says.

“But his consistency and his habits every single day – and then what we are doing offensively, being able to put him in a position – is why he’s playing at a much higher level than he previously had.”

Hooker credits the UT coaches for unlocking his potential.

“They’ve helped me the most in confidence. Going out there and playing my game,” Hooker acknowledges. “They really just encourage me to go out there and have fun. We prepare hard throughout the week, so we’re prepared to rock-and-roll on game day. They really tell me to just go out there and do my thing.”

Hooker comes from a household with a quarterbacking tradition.

His father, Alan, was a record-breaking quarterback at North Carolina A&T, where his younger brother, Alston, is a freshman quarterback.

“My mom always told me when I was really young that the only way I would calm down is if they put on my dad’s football highlights,” Hooker remembers. “I really fell in love with the game at an early age.”

Hooker drove home to Greensboro, North Carolina, during UT’s open week to visit his parents and watch his younger brother play. How does the family decide where to go when both are playing on the same weekend?

“It’s really a question of what my mom wants to do,” Hooker says. “If she wants to come see me play, then her and my dad will pack up the car and will come see me play. If not, then they’ll stay home and watch my brother.”

Although many fans have only seen a calm and composed Hooker during his short time on Rocky Top, teammates paint another side to the player who gave himself the nickname “Hendo Cinco.”

“Goofy. He’s very goofy. Hendon is goofy,” UT wide receiver JaVonta Payton says. “You can catch him on the field, and he’ll be over there dancing by himself. You’ll catch him dancing in the locker room. He’ll rap every once in a while. It’s different stuff like that.”

UT’s quarterback room has completely turned over in the last year through the transfer portal.

Hooker and Milton transferred to UT, while Harrison Bailey, Brian Mauer, Jarrett Guarantano, Kaidon Salter and JT Shrout departed. Bailey, a sophomore from Georgia, was the latest to leave. The former four-star recruit entered his name in the portal during UT’s bye week.

Hooker and Milton are the only scholarship quarterbacks remaining on the roster.

Hooker has another year of eligibility he can use, but says he hasn’t decided if he will stay at UT beyond this season. He says he is focused on Kentucky and trying to win as many games as possible in 2021.

No matter what Hooker’s future holds, he’s earned the faith of his teammates.

“Hendon’s a real positive guy. He brings the energy,” UT offensive lineman Ollie Lane points out. “He makes everybody around him play at a higher level. He continuously motivates us on the sidelines and he’s a great leader on the field.”

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