Sunday, May 28 2023

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — For Hendon Hooker, it’s always the same critiques that come from those dissecting his game, due to the offense he played in at Tennessee

It’s funny to him. 

“There are a lot of intricacies that go into what we do and how we do it,” Hooker said at Tennessee Pro Day on Thursday. 

There are also the questions about his health, as Hooker tore the ACL in his left knee in November. His age is brought up, too — how he’ll turn 26 next January, older than ascending NFL quarterbacks who already have multiple years of pro experience like the ChargersJustin Herbert, Jaguars‘ Trevor Lawrence and Dolphins‘ Tua Tagovailoa

But arguably the biggest concern from draft pundits is: Can Hooker succeed outside of the Vols’ timing-based, spread system? 

Josh Heupel’s offense is one of the fastest and most explosive in college football — Tennessee last season led the FBS in scoring (46.1 points per game) and total offense (525.5 yards per game) — but it doesn’t require the quarterback to go through full field progressions. The offense thrives off tempo, wide splits and receivers being fast and decisive in response to the defenders post-snap. 

Hooker wants to make something clear. 

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“There are a lot of things you have to process, so the mental side of the game is at an all-time high,” he explained of the offense. “The physical side of the game, it looks easy because we make it look easy.”

Hooker, who spent his first three college seasons at Virginia Tech, also had more responsibility at the line of scrimmage this past year for Tennessee, compared to his first in Knoxville. He controlled some of the Vols’ run and RPO game, according to Heupel. He had box checks, alerts and kills at the line of scrimmage, too. 

Across two seasons at Tennessee, the 6-foot-3, 217-pound Hooker completed 68.8% of his passes for 6,080 yards and 58 touchdowns to just five interceptions. He led the FBS with 9.5 yards per pass attempt in 2022. 

Those stats have made him a projected early round pick, with many believing he could go in the first round. His stock has risen in the pre-draft process. Former NFL general manager and current ESPN NFL insider Mike Tannenbaum mocked Hooker going fifth overall to the Seahawks. 

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“I’m not sure anybody in college football has more on their plate then Hendon does,” Heupel said. “Then you throw in the tempo we play at. He controlled the entire game on every single play, and I think that puts him in a great spot to be able to transition to the next level, handle all that’s coming and handle it at a very high level.

“I’ve been getting a lot of questions about scheme and [NFL] guys that want to incorporate a lot of what we’re doing,” he added. “I think it will transition just fine. You look at the NFL, college football, how it’s impacted the way that game is being played now. A lot of what’s happening on this level is transitioning upward, not necessarily just downward.”

Hooker prides himself on leadership — being personable and energetic, communicating with his teammates and coaching staff at a high level. “It’s overwhelming how well he does everything,” Vols teammate and fellow draft prospect Jerome Carvin said. 

Hooker helped restore Tennessee football’s national prominence, according to those close to the program. The Volunteers won 11 games last season and were rated as high as No. 2 in the AP poll for the first time in 21 years. 

“Never been around anybody who’s been a stronger or more impactful leader than Hendon Hooker,” Heupel said. “Our program is not where it’s at today unless Hendon is a part of our locker room. He’s a fierce competitor, somebody that our guys fed off of. That’s when things were going great and when things were maybe not going great. He’ll be the same guy that’s true to his character, true to who he is. 

“That’s the same guy that some NFL franchise is going to get.”

Tennessee wide receiver Jalin Hyatt, a fellow early round prospect in the upcoming draft, has known Hooker since their days playing AAU basketball in high school.

“I have so much respect for him and what he’s accomplished here,” Hyatt said. “I hope he goes down as one of the all-time greats here for sure.”

Critics aside, that’s on the table. 

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.

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