Thank you Hendon Hooker for reviving football in Tennessee

Last weekend, Tennessee’s college football playoff dreams were dashed after a 63-38 loss in South Carolina. But by far the worst part of a terrible night in Columbia came in the 4th quarter.

Vols QB Hendon Hooker ran a zone read and planted his left leg in the turf while attempting to cut through a hole, something he had done so many times in his football life. But this time his leg buckled, and most onlookers knew immediately what the result was.

Suddenly the playoff didn’t mean much anymore. Neither did Hooker’s increasingly legitimate Heisman offer. Hooker had torn his cruciate ligament. His college career was over.

Unfortunately, Hooker’s time in Tennessee did not end spectacularly. But that doesn’t mean his time in Tennessee wasn’t spectacular.

In a little under 2 years, Hooker threw for 6,080 yards and 58 TDs while throwing just 5 INTs. His mileage is ranked 8th all-time; his overall TD is 5. He also ranks 5th (3,135 this season) and 11th (2,945 last season) on the Vols’ single-season list for passing yards. The injury prevented him from threatening Peyton Manning’s single-season yardage mark of 3,819.

Hooker also added 1,050 rushing yards and 10 TDs. He was the main reason Tennessee became the top-ranked offense in all of college football. As it turned out, Hooker was a perfect match for Josh Heupel’s blur ball system.

But Hooker didn’t come to Tennessee to play for Heupel. Hooker signed to Tennessee in early January 2021 after 4 years at Virginia Tech, knowing that Vols QB incumbents Jarrett Guarantano and JT Shrout were changing. The starting job would be his.

But coach Jeremy Pruitt, to whom Hooker signed, was fired less than 2 weeks later.

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Sports betting in Tennessee officially launched on November 1st, 2020. Tennessee was the first SEC state to legalize sports betting.

Heupel was soon hired and wasn’t entirely happy with what he saw in the QB room. Heupel brought Joe Milton to Michigan and eventually gave him the starting job.

Imagine you’re a hooker, sitting on the bench starting your fifth season of college football, playing for a coach you didn’t choose. But instead of sulking or looking for greener pastures, Hooker stayed committed. He didn’t get his chance until two weeks into the 2021 season when Milton was injured during the game in Pittsburgh.

Hooker took control of position and offense and started the next 22 games. And while his value as a team leader and de facto program spokesperson transcends wins and losses, we’re not na├»ve enough to ignore the fact that this is a results-driven business. Hooker went 15-7 as a starter in Tennessee.

The Vols started 8-0 and rose to No. 1 in the playoff poll. They don’t get anywhere near the success they have without a hooker in the middle.

Tennessee’s futility against its greatest rivals dates back to the mid-2000s. Regarding Florida, the Vols had only beaten them once since 2004, when they entered their Week 4 clash. Hooker accounted for 461 yards on total offense and 3 points against the Gators, leading UT to a 38-33 win on Sept. 24.

Hooker’s shining moment came on the biggest stage when Tennessee faced Alabama on Oct. 15. It was an electric atmosphere at Neyland Stadium as the Vols attempted to end a 15-game losing streak against the Tide. Nine different starting quarterbacks were part of that stretch of futility. Rarely were these games even close.

Hooker threw 385 yards and 5 TDs while running for 56 yards. He also had a rare INT and a fumble exchange that resulted in a scoop-and-score from Bama mid-Q4 to put the Tide ahead.

Those moments could have been traumatic for the Vols. Other Vols teams would certainly have folded against Nick Saban at the first sign of adversity.

But Hooker’s confidence shone through that sideline. There was no panic. Hooker led the Vols on the game timing drive. Then, after a missed field goal from Alabama, Tennessee conquered their own 32, with 15 seconds left and the score even at 49.

Most teams would have played for OT. But Tennessee’s offense — with a QB of Hooker’s caliber — had never considered doing such a thing.

The rest became history. An 18-yard pass to Ramel Keyton and a 27-yard smash to Bru McCoy put Tennessee in position to win. Incredibly, Hooker had moved the vols 45 yards in 13 seconds.

Prior to Chase McGrath’s game-winning 40-yard kick, a VFL Films camera caught Hooker simply saying, “It’s over,” and he was right. The goalposts fell, cigars were lit, and Tennessee celebrated its biggest win in nearly a quarter century.

None of this happens without Hendon Hooker. None of Tennessee’s dramatic and unlikely return to the college football landscape will happen without Hendon Hooker.

He could still earn a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy awards show, but it doesn’t matter.

Hendon Hooker’s place in Tennessee football history is secure.

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