Tennessee football: Is Hendon Hooker Vols’ biggest reason for optimism?

Josh Heupel leading Tennessee football to a 7-6 record his first year on the job given everything working against the Vols as a program has generated a ton of hype behind the program for this year. A break in the setup of the schedule, not necessarily the difficulty of it, also helps.

However, one of Heupel’s biggest reasons for success last year is a reason for the hype behind the Vols this year: Hendon Hooker. Brad Crawford of 247Sports named Hooker the biggest reason for optimism surrounding the program entering 2022.

It makes sense. Hooker took over the second game of last year and started the rest of the way, throwing for 31 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He completed 68 percent of his passes as well, a school record for over 300 attempts. Here’s what Crawford wrote about the Tennessee football quarterback.

Ranked inside the 247Sports top 10 quarterbacks, Hooker would start under center at 99% of FBS programs and is a difference-maker for the Volunteers. He’s comes off a 36-touchdown season after managing more than 3,500 yards of total offense as the facilitator within Josh Heupel’s tempo-based scheme. If he stays healthy, Tennessee has a shot to upend several big-time opponents on the schedule if the defense is serviceable and Hooker’s not playing catch-up with his fellow offensive starters.

All of what Crawford said is largely true, but what really helps Hooker is how much Joe Milton III struggled with accuracy when he was in the game and when he started the season last year. Would the difference he makes be that glaring otherwise?

After all, Heupel is considered a quarterback guru who has churned out dominant offenses. He did that as offensive coordinator with the Missouri Tigers, and he used that success to have an undefeated regular season his first year with the UCF Knights.

Taking that into account, Heupel may seem like the bigger reason for optimism than Hooker. Also, UT’s first three Power Five opponents involve two teams that went 6-7 last year and have new head coaches and a Pittsburgh Panthers team that lost exactly what made it good last year.

That potentially lends itself to a 5-0 start, which would be a reason on its own for optimism surrounding Tennessee football. Also, the Vols return their go-to wideout in Cedric Tillman, who had 12 touchdown catches and over 1,000 receiving yards last year.

However, even with all that, Crawford is right. Hooker is the biggest reason for optimism. Let’s start with the Heupel effect. Sure, he’s an offensive guru, but none of his quarterbacks were as efficient throwing the ball as Hooker last year.

In three years at UCF, Dillon Gabriel no McKenzie Milton ever completed more than 60 percent of their passes under Heupel, nor were their touchdown-to-interception ratios ever at 10:1, although Gabriel came close in 2020. The best yards per attempt average was 9.2, and Hooker was at 9.7 last year.

Simply put, in terms of passing efficiency, those quarterbacks weren’t even close to Hooker. In fact, in terms of raw numbers, while Gabriel accounted for more yards in 2019 and 2020 than Hooker did in 2021, none of them ever accounted for as many as 36 touchdowns.

This was all against Group of Five competition as well, not SEC competition. In Heupel’s two years as Mizzou offensive coordinator, Drew Lock never averaged 9.7 yards per attempt, his best touchdown-to-interception ratio was just over 3:1, and he never completed above 58 percent of his passes.

When you look at all those numbers, Heupel is a great offensive mind, but Hooker was more efficient than any quarterback he has coached in recent years. That’s also the reason Tennessee football went 7-6 last year and not 5-7 or worse.

Hooker’s credit transitions to the next point. If the Vols had a losing record, the Pittsburgh Panthers, Florida Gators and LSU Tigers would not all be considered winnable games, even with Florida and LSU undergoing coaching changes. They are considered to have a navigable schedule because of their capabilities under Hooker.

Finally,  Tillman may be a huge advantage at receiver, but as mentioned, Milton wasn’t able to put up these passing stats with him. Between the two, Hooker’s mobility makes him the more valuable player beyond the fact that this is just a quarterback driven sport.

As a result, Crawford is right. Hooker is the biggest reason for Tennessee football’s optimism. Everything else that can be mentioned as a factor stems from what Hooker did when taking over last year. There’s a reason he’s a dark-horse Heisman contender.