Jimmy’s blog: Hooker produced when he started having fun

Jimmy’s blog: Hooker produced when he started having fun

By Jimmy Hyams

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker didn’t light it up the first few days of 2021 spring practice under Josh Heupel.

Seems the transfer from Virginia Tech was taking things too seriously.

“Hendon was a guy who was way too far in the business model, meaning that nothing was fun,’’ said UT quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle. “Everything was serious. That wasn’t his best way to play. For some guys it is. It is not for him.

“Everything about him was tight … This is an extremely talented athlete that’s not showcasing any of his athleticism.

“We had to spend a long time working on having him really just enjoy the game while working hard. Working hard doesn’t mean serious all of the time, though. He is fun. He is enjoying himself and enjoying his time out on the field. That is what has allowed his talent to now take over again.’’

Hooker didn’t even win the starting quarterback job in 2021. That went to Joe Milton, who suffered an ankle injury to Game 2, opening the door for Hooker.

How did Halzle notice Hooker was limiting his potential by being too serious?

It wasn’t on the football field.

“I watched him when he was messing around playing basketball,’’ Halzle said. “He’d get a big smile on his face, and nobody could guard him.

“I told him last year in the summer, ‘I want you to play football like you play basketball,’ because when he plays basketball, he knows he’s the best player on the court.”

Hooker became the best quarterback on the field for Tennessee, and the best quarterback on the field in majority of the Vols’ games last season.

He had a brilliant 31-touchdown-to-three-interception ratio. He set a UT school record for completion percentage in a season and pass-efficiency rating.

When you put up numbers like that, it’s fun. When you average 39 points per game – 34 in SEC games – that’s fun. When you score 45 points with less than 15 minutes time of possession against an SEC rival, that’s fun.

Halzle said getting Hooker to flip the mental switch took time.

“We had to just bend that mind a little bit and work on his mind every single day to, ‘Yes, this is football, this is fun. You have to be serious, but you have to do it in a fun way,’’’ Halzle said.

“(Having fun) doesn’t mean not paying attention. It doesn’t mean being completely goofy out there on the field, and not having a mindset that we have something to go do. But there’s a way to do it in which you can still enjoy the game that you’re playing. When he started doing that, he started loosening up, and that’s when you saw the growth in Hendon last year.’’

Hooker’s lack of interceptions speaks to his decision making, but also, perhaps, to being conservative with the football.

Halzle said that might have been the case early, but not as the season progressed..

“He was just extremely intelligent with the football,’’ Halzle said. “He made good decisions. I said it the first day that I ever came out here: I don’t want a guy that comes out and plays carefully. If you’re going to play in this offense for us, you’re going to rip the football every single time you get an opportunity—not stupidly, not recklessly, but extremely aggressive.

“Hendon does a beautiful job of walking the aggressive-to-reckless line, but always with intelligence on it.” 

Sponsored by Big Kahuna Wings: The wings that changed it all

Blogs