Handon Hooker is immobile on the football field and mobile in NFL meeting rooms, where he overcomes concerns about his age, health and playing style.
The 25-year-old former Tennessee quarterback who tore his ACL in his left knee less than five months ago, spent his pre-draft visits with teams explaining the complexities of the Volunteers’ seemingly simplistic spread offense. That’s what has raised concerns about how his game will translate to the pros, where he’ll have to read the entire field and not lock into his primary target as much.
“I can make any throw,” Hooker said. “The way we run our offense, the wide splits, it’s all big man throws. I’m not going to throw a 5 yard out. These are balls for big boys.
Hooker bristles at questions about how he’ll fare in a pro-style offense.
“I can’t help that the linebackers can’t guard my receivers. My job is to get them the ball,” Hooker said. “A lot of these one-sided reading questions, we have clean progressions and routes. It’s not my fault that my first reading opens up.’
And make no mistake, Hooker added, there’s a lot going on beneath that cool demeanor of his that makes it seem like he’s just playing a trick.
Hooker figures to be the fifth quarterback selected in the NFL draft later this month, following surefire first-rounders Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Will Levis and Anthony Richardson.
“I really like Hendon Hooker,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said, citing his accuracy, acumen and adjustability.
Hooker’s age — he’ll be 26 by the end of his rookie season — and health — he tore the ACL in his left knee in a Nov. 19 game against South Carolina — have many predicting he’ll slide into the second round. But Jeremiah has him going to the Vikings at No. 23 in his latest mock draft.
The 2022 SEC Offensive Player of the Year spent three years at Virginia Tech and the last two at Tennessee.
Patrick Mahomes is only two years older than Hooker, but he has already played six seasons in the NFL and won a pair of Super Bowl rings. Jalen Hurts is 24 years old and has three years of NFL experience and a Super Bowl appearance.
“If you tell me you take Hendon Hooker in the second round and he’s your starting quarterback or seven, eight really good years, I think you’ll take it,” Jeremiah said. “I think Hendon Hooker has a chance to be a real value pick for somebody.”
Hooker could find himself sitting a year behind an established starter, something that will calm any concerns about his surgically repaired knee.
The more pressing concern is how Hooker’s game will translate to the next level after operating in Tennessee’s super-spread offense where he had to get the ball out and rarely made his first read.
That style aside, “I’m just going to say when you evaluate him, the accuracy, the decision-making, the poise, the athleticism to be able to move and create with his feet, throw as well as run, all those things are there “, siad Jeremiah.
At Tennessee, Hooker was what scouts call a “half-court reader.”
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay believes this is more a product of Josh Heupel’s offense than a flaw in Hooker’s game.
“The reports from every team I’ve talked to about him is that he’s done a great job of getting on the board and understanding the concepts and he can go back to his Virginia Tech textbook and recite everything like he’s played in it yesterday,” McShay said. “That’s part of the reason why it’s so important for quarterbacks to have individual time, private practices, private meetings, really study their brains and how they learn.”
Hooker enjoyed showing off his football flair on the whiteboards.
“Every time I pass a mirror and there’s an Expo marker, I’ll draw on the mirror,” Hooker said. “It’s something I love to do because I love the game of football.”
Heupel said the offense Hooker has been asked to run at Tennessee isn’t as simple as it looks.
“I’m not sure anybody in college football has more than Hendon,” Heupel said. “Then add the pace we play at, you have to make quick decisions, you have to recognize the defensive structure extremely quickly. … He controlled the entire game on every play. I think that puts him in a great position to be able to go to the next level and handle whatever comes his way.”
Heupel said intangibles like leadership and charisma are what will make Hooker someone’s franchise quarterback.
“I’ve never been around anyone who was a stronger or more impactful leader than Hendon Hooker,” Heupel said. “Our program wouldn’t be where it is today without Hendon being a part of our locker room.”
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa Walker of Nashville contributed.
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