This is Monday. Next Monday is August. We’re close.
In these final few weeks before kickoff, we’re taking a look at the things Tennessee did very best…and very worst in 2021. There are places for celebration, as well as a moment to ask if we’ll see such greatness again this year. And there are places for obvious improvement, where even a little difference can go a long way.
Let’s start with a word about tempo. The Vols led college football in plays per minute and points per minute, two of many facts whose solidification was lost in the immediate aftermath of the Purdue game. Instead of getting to talk about historic records falling, we got to talk about referees, everyone’s favorite topic. Tennessee was also 127th nationally in defensive snaps allowed, and trailed only Michigan State among teams playing 13 games. So there are plenty of Tennessee’s raw numbers that require that caveat: more snaps = more numbers, etc.
Setting pace aside, the thing Tennessee did very best last season: Hendon Hooker threw just three interceptions on 303 passing attempts.
Only Hooker and Bo Nix had three or fewer interceptions on 300+ passing attempts in college football last year; Nix gets the slight edge and the new SEC record with three picks on 323 attempts. Drop it to 250+ attempts, and it’s still a list with only those two, Dequan Finn at Toledo, and Brendon Lewis at Colorado on it.
Hooker was able to take down several Tennessee passing records last season, in part due to what Josh Heupel’s offense sets up for its quarterback. We looked at some of these going into the Music City Bowl, where Hooker easily finished off the school record for yards per attempt. He stayed just north of Erik Ainge for the single-season completion percentage record.
But the most impressive number is those three interceptions. That’s less than one percent of his total passing attempts. And according to the 2021 media guide, the previous UT and SEC record was held by the guy now at #2 on this list:
Tennessee QB Interception Percentage, 1992-2021
Anytime we’re breaking Peyton Manning records, we’re doing something right. And you’ll also notice the bottom of the list belongs to true freshmen, including Manning as well. More recently, you’ll note one of the big off-season conversations from 2015 to 2016: will they let Dobbs throw it downfield more? The 2015 Vols were more content to bludgeon, and with Dobbs + Hurd + Kamara it wasn’t a bad plan. But Tennessee and Mike DeBord did take more chances the following year, in part because they had to with defensive difficulties. The Vols turned that into more big plays, but also seven more interceptions.
With Heupel’s offense, there isn’t much concern about getting even more aggressive. That’s part of what makes Hooker’s year so impressive. And finding that explosiveness while minimizing risk is an incredible combo, one Heupel was able to duplicate at UCF:
- 2018: McKenzie Milton 2.08% (6 INTs on 289 attempts)
- 2019: Dillon Gabriel 1.76% (7 INTs on 398 attempts)
- 2020: Dillon Gabriel 0.97% (4 INTs on 413 attempts)
That last number, you’ll note, is even a smidge better than Hooker’s.
Is #5 going to throw more than three interceptions this year? I mean, the starting point is so low it’s hard to take the under. But if the Vols can continue to operate with this level of precision + explosiveness in the passing game? That’s a clear path to more success, and perhaps to individual honor for Hooker.
And it’s even more impressive considering the thing Tennessee was very worst at, which we’ll look at next.