Footballs

On Hendon Hooker at Virginia Tech

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In the midst of what feels like perpetual uncertainty, a surprise: the Vols picked up a transfer portal commitment from Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker. I live in the Blacksburg “metro”, and have spent nine of the last 15 years in southwest Virginia. I’m by no means an expert on the Hokies, just someone who watches them more closely and interacts more often with their fans than the average Tennessee fan. You can find good analysis on Hooker’s game out there – here’s a few thoughts on how he got there.

Virginia Tech’s stability at head coach under Frank Beamer manifested itself into great stability at quarterback. There’s a long line of multi-year starters in the post-Vick era: Bryan Randall, Sean Glennon, Tyrod Taylor, Logan Thomas, Michael Brewer. As Justin Fuente took over in 2016, however, the pattern breaks. The first year the Hokies went the juco route with Jerod Evans, who we saw in Bristol. They won their division and gave Clemson a scare in the title game, Fuente was ACC Coach of the Year, all was well. Evans actually set some VT passing records…and then declared for the draft, where he was not selected, and has yet to play a down in the NFL.

In 2017 the Hokies went with freshman Josh Jackson. They again finished the regular season 9-3 with losses to Clemson and a good Miami team, and fell to #14 Oklahoma State in the bowl game. All was well. Then Jackson broke his leg in the third game of the 2018 season, what ended up being a catastrophic 49-35 loss to Old Dominion, maybe the first sign of some real defensive trouble under Fuente. Jackson ultimately transferred to Maryland.

Hendon Hooker was a freshman in 2018, but when Jackson went down the job went to Kansas transfer Ryan Willis. The Hokies were game against Notre Dame in a loss, then suffered four straight defeats in which they gave up 49, 31, 52, and 38 points. Willis again had the job at the start of the 2019 season, which opened with a loss to Boston College, close wins over Old Dominion and Furman, and a 45-10 beatdown in Blacksburg at the hands of David Cutcliffe. At this point, as people were commenting on the heat of Jeremy Pruitt’s seat after Georgia State, BYU, and Florida early in year two, the sudden temperature of Fuente’s seat in year four made for a helpful comparison: Pruitt shouldn’t be in trouble after 15 games, this is what being in trouble actually looks like, etc.

Then Virginia Tech went to Hendon Hooker.

In his first start at Miami, the Hokies scored 42 points thanks to five turnovers and won by a touchdown. Hooker was 10-of-20 for 184 yards and three touchdowns, plus 76 yards on the ground. His numbers were similar in a win over Rhode Island, and got off to a good start against North Carolina before a familiar theme emerged: he got hurt in the first half, missing the rest of a six-overtime win over the Tar Heels. And he also missed Virginia Tech’s trip to South Bend the following week.

He returned to guide a three-game winning streak over Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, and Pittsburgh, never throwing for more than 260 yards but also never throwing an interception. His rushing totals became less productive – 7 for 10 against Georgia Tech, 20 for 27 against Pitt – but the Hokies were winning and their defense was playing well again.

In the last two games of 2019, the Hokies played wild affairs with Virginia and Kentucky. Hooker was 18-of-30 for 311 yards against the Cavs, but threw his first two interceptions of the year, the first on a hail mary at the end of the first half. The last one came with VT driving to take the lead in Virginia territory; he was also sacked three times in a row on the next drive. This is a theme you’ll hear on Hooker: if the defense knows you’re throwing it, he can struggle.

He was better on the ground against Kentucky in the bowl (12 for 50), but the Cats did a good job stopping him through the air (12-of-22 for 110).

Obviously, you take everything in 2020 with a grain of salt. Covid testing showed an unrelated medical issue that kept Hooker out of VT’s first two games of the year, wins over NC State and Duke. Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister ran an efficient offense and stayed at the helm against North Carolina, where the Hokies lost 56-45 in a game both QBs played in. From there it was back to Hooker, who was sensational on the ground in a win over Boston College (18 for 164). He went for 98 more rushing yards against Wake Forest the next week, but threw three interceptions and the Hokies lost. The next week, however, he was 10-of-10 passing for 183 yards and ran for another 68 in a 42-35 win over Louisville.

Against Liberty, Hooker was again really good: 156 yards rushing, 20-of-27 for 217 through the air with three touchdowns and no interceptions. The Hokies lost a 38-35 shootout. Miami’s defense was better at taking all that away, beating Virginia Tech 25-24. And then the defense totally collapsed against Pittsburgh in a 47-14 defeat. Hooker again wasn’t bad statistically, but VT was never really in the game after halftime.

Then more weirdness: against Clemson, Hooker fumbled a snap on the opening drive and looked shaken, so Fuente went to Burmeister. He led a touchdown drive, so he stayed in the game. He was later removed for a scoop and score fumble, but the Hokies still trailed only 24-10 and had the ball in Clemson territory when Hooker returned. But he fumbled again, and appeared to have a medical issue on the sideline where he was shaking and “couldn’t get warm.” He did not play in the season finale against Virginia.

Had he thrown it enough to qualify, Hooker’s 2019 passer rating would’ve trailed only Trevor Lawrence among ACC quarterbacks. The Josh Dobbs comparisons I’ve seen are most fitting for pre-2016 Dobbs, the guy we wondered if they’d ever let him throw it deep down the field. That answer turned out to be an emphatic yes. Hooker’s dual threat skill set is something the 2020 Vols did not have on the roster, and he can certainly be efficient and mistake-free. It’s when defenses put him in third-and-long or he had to get them downfield in a hurry without his legs that Hooker struggled in particular. But there is no doubt potential and far more experience than anything the Vols will bring back next year.

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