By Mark Nagi
I’m of the mindset that no Tennessee football player will ever win the Heisman Trophy.
In 1951, Johnny Majors was the best football player in the country not named Jim Brown. But Majors lost to Paul Hornung and the Notre Dame PR machine.
In 1997, Peyton Manning was the best football player in the country but lost to Michigan’s Charles Woodson and the ESPN PR machine.
If Majors and Manning don’t get it, no Vol will hear his name called.
That all said, Tennessee’s starting quarterback in 2022, Hendon Hooker, might at least get in the conversation. He’s primed to put up monster numbers in Josh Heupel’s offense yet again. Last year Hooker threw for 2,945 yards and 31 touchdowns, completing 68% of his passes with only three interceptions. He also ran for 620 yards and 5 scores.
And he’s getting even better at tricking opposing defenses.
“I was excited for the opportunity to work with him (Hooker),” said Tennessee quarterback coach Joey Halzle. “It has been really fun actually. He did it in the spring at a high level… it has been really fun to watch his improvement and to watch him enjoy doing it, where it’s not like work every time. He’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got this.’ It’s been really fun to watch his improvement there.”
Hooker of course replaced 2021 season-opening starter Joe Milton during the loss to Pittsburgh in Week 2. But Milton is always a snap away from playing. From the sounds of things, he’s had a very good few months on the practice field.
“We’ve worked all offseason on touch throws across the middle and pressing our vertical run game,” said Halzle. “He has done a great job doing that. He is touching up balls all over the field. We all know he has the absolute howitzer of an arm, so we have worked on having him touch up the ball, work windows and work that aspect of his game. We know he has the other shot in his bag already.”
Milton could have transferred but chose to stay in Knoxville, much to the UT coaching staff’s delight.
“It’s probably something that’s going to be rapidly disappearing, to have a backup quarterback with experience,” said Halzle. “I think that speaks to the relationship that he and Hendon have, and also the way he feels about this place. He wasn’t in a hurry to jump up and leave as soon as Hendon had the type of year that he did. That’s been awesome that he’s been like that and that we have that type of guy in our room right now.”
Hooker and Milton both want to play, but that hasn’t taken away from their relationship. “They compete with each other every day,” said Halzle. “Growing up, you always want to beat your best friend, but it’s always in a positive light. That positivity and that positive energy have really just translated into our QB room.”
That room includes true freshman Tayven Jackson, who was impressive during spring practice, and one day could run the show for the Vols. He’s learning from Hooker and Milton.
“That is huge for a young quarterback because he has two guys above him that are not just in the building doing what they need to do every day, but guys who have also played,” said Halzle. “They can talk to him, ‘This is what it’s like on game day. This is how you have to prepare.’ That’s so uncommon, and that’s a huge benefit that he is getting coming in. He can just sit and listen to these guys talk, get stuff from them, and they are both very positive with him. They’re not beating him down. They kind of rib at him sometimes like you would with a little brother, but it’s all positive. It speaks, again, to the culture that we not only have in this building but specifically in that room.”