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VOL. 46 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 25, 2022

What might have been

Heisman hopes? Gone. Title hopes? Gone: Season finale at VU loses its luster for Vols

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Hendon Hooker climbed the ladder in the southeast corner of Neyland Stadium and began directing the Pride of the Southland Band after leading the Vols to another dominating win in the final home game of his Tennessee career.

As the senior stood waving the batons, fans in the stadium began chanting “Heisman! Heisman! Heisman!”

Hooker had just thrown for 355 yards against Missouri, completing 25 or 35 passes for three touchdowns without an interception and running for another 50 yards in a 66-25 laugher.

The Vols had set aside the previous week’s 27-17 loss to Georgia and appeared headed to an 11-1 record and a good shot at the College Football Playoff final four, praying one or more teams ahead of them faltered.

Then the unthinkable, a 25-point loss against a 22-point underdog South Carolina team that was coming off a 38-6 loss to Florida, the same Gator squad Vanderbilt defeated Saturday.

Hooker wasn’t around for the end. He hobbled to the locker room after a knee injury late in the contest. A torn ACL in his left knee was confirmed Sunday, ending his UT career. Senior Joe Milton will be under center for the regular season finale at Vanderbilt.

Having helped resurrect the UT program from the depths of despair to the doorstep of the College Football Playoff, Hooker could have cemented his legacy by running the table and, quite possibly, becoming the first Tennessee player to win the Heisman.

The Virginia Tech transfer entered Saturday’s game in the top three of nearly every Heisman winner forecast. His competition included the frontrunner, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, and North Carolina’s Drake Maye, USC’s Caleb Williams, Georgia’s Stetson Bennett and Michigan running back Blake Corum.

By Monday morning, Las Vegas oddsmakers didn’t list him in their top 10.

Despite the disappointing loss and career-ending injury at South Carolina, Hendon Hooker will be remembered for helping resurrect a struggling program and beating Alabama.

-- Photos By Jerry Denham |The Ledger

“I’m very appreciative of that,” Hooker said when the goal was still in sight. “I’m blessed to be in that situation, but I wouldn’t be in any of that without my teammates and coaches and support system. Really just concentrating on going 1-0 every week and when someone approaches me with it, I have the same answer: We just want to win ballgames.”

The Heisman has been awarded to college football’s most outstanding player since 1935, and no UT player has ever walked away with the trophy.

The Vols have produced four finalists: Hank Lauricella (1951), Johnny Majors (1956), Heath Shuler (1993) and Peyton Manning (1997).

Manning’s runner-up finish remains a sticking point with many UT fans. The legendary quarterback was edged by Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson, who became the only primarily defensive player to ever win the Heisman.

Likewise, Tennessee fans felt Majors should have won the award that went to Paul Hornung, whose team finished 2-8 that season.

UT head coach Josh Heupel was a Heisman runner-up himself in 2000 as the quarterback at Oklahoma and coached OU Heisman winners Sam Bradford and Jason White.

Heupel says Hooker has been more than deserving of being in the conversation for the prestigious award all season.

“He is playing at as high a level as I have ever had anybody, and I’ve had Heisman guys,” Heupel says. “He is in complete command of what we are doing. You look at the efficiency of how he is playing, the ability to take care of the football, the dynamic plays that he has made with his arm and with his feet. We don’t look like we do offensively without him.”

Senior quarterback Joe Milton III, who Hooker unseated early in the 2021 season, will get the start Saturday against Vanderbilt.

Hooker’s only been at Tennessee for two seasons, but his impact has been immense. He has swiftly moved into the top 10 in program history for total offense and career passing yards, and has been near the top of most offensive statistical categories nationally this season.

The evolution of hype

Rather than stage a major promotion from the start, Tennessee let Hooker’s Heisman campaign build gradually throughout the season, figuring it best to let him make the case. As the Vols began accumulating wins and his passing yards escalated, Hooker’s Heisman odds improved in lock step.

Heisman campaigns have evolved over the last two decades. Instead of mass mailings, billboards in big cities or snazzy slogans, athletic departments have placed a greater emphasis on social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and Facebook to spread the word.

It’s more efficient and can reach a much wider audience.

“Our accounts have had the biggest growth of any team in the country this year, Twitter especially,” says Bill Martin, Tennessee’s assistant athletic director of football communications. “The social media platforms are very powerful in this era in terms of awards and campaigns and promoting our players.”

Helping their cause has been UT’s prominence on television. The Vols have appeared on CBS four times, ESPN three times and ABC once this season. ESPN’s College GameDay – the nation’s most-watched college football pregame show – has aired live at three of UT’s games, including twice from Knoxville.

“I have always said the biggest selling point of the year are the broadcasts,” Martin explains. “We were involved in some of the most-viewed games of the college football season. There is not a bigger promotional opportunity than that live broadcast and the College GameDay appearances. Our players are front and center.”

Hooker’s back story has provided compelling content. He transferred from Virginia Tech before the 2021 season, and stayed in Knoxville despite a coaching change and potential NCAA violations hanging over the program.

He was the backup last season until Joe Milton got hurt and held the job as UT’s offense skyrocketed.

The humble 24-year-old is businesslike in his approach to football and polished with the media.

Off the field, Hooker is the co-author of a children’s Scripture book with his younger brother, and has accumulated numerous NIL deals, including with Mercedes-Benz of Knoxville and French’s mustard.

Final chance to impress

Award promotions at UT are a collaborative effort. The communications and creative staff meet every Monday to discuss what they want to highlight throughout the week.

They make a list of stats, graphics, photos, videos and written content that can be used to showcase a player or aspect of the program.

Although they are happy to solicit input from coaches, it’s rarely needed.

“They empower and trust us to execute those things and we appreciate that,” Martin says. “Coach Heupel is just awesome to work with. He understands this era of athletics and promoting the individual athletes and how critical that is for their brands, their careers and their futures.”

In addition to the Heisman, the Vols have never had a player win the Biletnikoff Award, given annually to the most outstanding receiver in college football. UT junior Jalin Hyatt has emerged this season as a candidate.

Any time a player captures an award of any kind, the UT communications and creative staff feels an immense sense of pride.

“There are very few opportunities in this job that are more rewarding than seeing a student-athlete capture an award, win a game or graduate,” Martin says. “Our No. 1 mission is helping them get recognized and build their brand, so we will be super aggressive in promoting them.”

VU game loses luster

Hooker’s last chance to impress the Heisman voters was to come Saturday (6:30 p.m. CST) against 2-5, 5-6 Vanderbilt, which is coming off consecutive SEC wins at Kentucky and at home against Florida.

Had Hooker been able to play against Vanderbilt, he still would have been sitting at home sitting at home Dec. 3 when the SEC Championship game is played in Atlanta between Georgia and LSU.

That could have helped or hurt Hooker’s chances depending on how any other Heisman candidates perform in the widely-viewed title showdowns. Heisman ballots are due by Dec. 5.

Hooker will likely be among the finalists invited to New York for the Heisman award presentation ceremony Dec. 10 (7 p.m. CST, ESPN).

Whatever transpires, Hooker’s legacy in Tennessee football history is secure.

“He will be one of the greats,” Heupel says. “However it ends out, he will be one of the greats here. Pretty cool story. The perseverance that it takes to fight and go through that as a player, it is a hard thing to do.”

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