Hendon Hooker: The Darkhorse Heisman Contender

Photo credit: Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud are probably the two names that come up first when discussing Heisman Trophy favorites for 2022. 

However, there is another contender that may merit a keen eye as we approach kickoff to the 2022 season. Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker is quietly coming off a veritably eye-popping statistical campaign. He is led by a fantastic offensive mind in head coach Josh Heupel, and Tennessee has the potential to turn heads in the SEC this coming season. 

If Hooker can elevate his level of play even a little and the Volunteers make the strides that many think they will, Hooker could be a darkhorse candidate to claim college football’s top individual honor.

Stellar QB Play is Essential

First, quarterback play in the modern style of football is absolutely essential. Oklahoma and Nebraska will never run the wishbone again. Woody Hayes and his “three yards and a cloud of dust” philosophy have long been relegated to the trash heap of history.

Coaching legends like Fielding Yost, Amos Alonzo Stagg, and Pop Warner would barely recognize the pass-happy teams of today as playing the same sport. Due to various rule changes and societal taste, accumulating stats through the air is now the name of the game. With those parameters set, it would make sense to focus on the men who orchestrate the offenses: the quarterbacks.

Furthermore, the conductor of the train matters. Pair a talented, budding quarterback with an aerial craftsman coach and you have a large portion of the Heisman formula down. Heupel, the second-year head coach, set scoreboards ablaze in his first season with Tennessee. 

The long-moribund Vols won seven games and scored a whopping 39 points per game in a brilliant display of consistent offensive acumen. When Heupel was at UCF in 2019 and 2020, Dillon Gabriel tossed for 7,000 yards and 60-plus touchdowns.

Furthermore, all of Heupel’s UCF teams averaged more than 42 points per game. His head coaching tenure has been short, but Heupel has proven a penchant for producing gaudy statistics.

Enter Hendon Hooker.

Hooker Emerges

In his first season in Knoxville, Hooker initially sat behind Joe Milton. After being thrust into action, the Virginia Tech transfer put up a gaudy stat line of 2,945 yards passing and 31 touchdowns. With a full season as the starter, those numbers would have been much larger.

Hooker, a dual threat, sliced up defenses with quarterback draws, crisp slants, and perfectly placed go patterns. Heupel launched an aerial attack the likes of which Knoxville hadn’t seen since Peyton Manning.

One can surmise that Hooker, now comfortable in the system, can produce a more impressive stat line this season. A line comprising 4,500 passing yards and 45 total touchdowns does not seem out of the question. In theory, that will lead to more team success.

The Heisman Trophy: A Team Honor

Finally, will Tennessee be a great team? That’s the remaining leg of the Heisman formula that will determine Hooker’s fate.

That is largely up to Heupel.

How will Tennessee’s defense fare? Game management? Personnel management? Time management? How will the other aspects that fuel a modern football program coalesce into a concretized winning machine?

Pete Carroll and Nick Saban won 11 and 12 games in their second seasons at USC and Alabama, respectively. USC had been mired in the wilderness for decades, and Alabama was a certified freak show before Saban showed up in Tuscaloosa.

Much like Saban and Carroll, Heupel took over a program that’s been dormant for decades. If Heupel channels his inner offensive juggernaut and leads the Vols to a season in which they compete with Georgia and Alabama for SEC supremacy, Hooker will be leading the charge. Should that happen, he’ll find himself in Manhattan come December.