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Hendon Hooker and Josh Heupel: college football’s unsung power couple

Hendon Hooker and Josh Heupel are a perfect marriage that may have laid the blueprint to help the Vols finally turn a new leaf

NCAA Football: Tennessee Tech at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a long time since Knoxville has had hope. It’s been a long time since they’ve had a winner. From 1980 to 2007, Tennessee was consistently good, and occasionally great. 1998 was football nirvana for the Vols, winning the first ever BCS National Championship. For 32 years, Tennessee was led by two men: Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer.

Since then, however, things have been incredibly rocky for Tennessee. 2008 was a brutal year for the Vols. They began the year 18th in the AP Poll, but from there, the 13 year roller coaster began. Fulmer’s squad finished his final season in Knoxville 5-7, losing all four ranked conference games, and missing out on going bowling for the second time in four seasons after not missing a bowl game for 16 consecutive years. The writing was on the wall for the aging coach, and thus began the coaching carousel of the late 2000s and 2010s.

From the ill-fated 2009 season where Lane Kiffin went from savior to public enemy number one by more or less burning down all that was left after Fulmer and then subsequently dipping for the USC job. After Kiffin burnt down Knoxville, Derek Dooley was left to clean up the pieces. Dooley was certainly not the answer, but we got top tier memes from him along the way. Never forget the stool. Dooley was 0-15 against ranked teams in his three seasons, and he was let go. In comes Butch Jones.

Sure, Butch Jones has the two best seasons since the end of Fulmer — a pair of 9-4 seasons in 2015 and 2016 — but he will forever be mired in disgustingness and victim shaming.

Lastly, we have Jeremy Pruitt, whose dismissal from Tennessee is mired in legal problems. Pruitt had great recruiting classes, particularly 2019 where he nabbed a pair of 5-star offensive linemen, Darnell Wright and Wanya Morris, and seven more .9000-plus grade players per 247. Linebackers Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch are both gone. To’o To’o is now at Alabama while Crouch went to East Lansing. Running back Eric Gray transferred to Oklahoma along with five-star Wanya Morris. Of the nine .9000-plus players, just five of them remain.

In-state recruit Key Lawrence was the highest rated player from Pruitt’s 2020 class, and like Morris and Gray, he, too, is now a Sooner. Following suit, quarterback Harrison Bailey entered the transfer portal just in October, and Malachi Wideman transferred to Jackson State before the season. Three of that class’s top four recruits are now gone.

On the field, Pruitt’s teams were mediocre, making just one bowl game in a win over Indiana in 2019.

Enter Josh Heupel. Heupel is heralded as a college offensive mastermind, and his reputation certainly backs that up. From his days as offensive coordinator at Missouri, he was ushering in a new style of offense driven on pace of play, and despite the 2016 and 2017 Missouri records never showing how successful he was, you need look no further than Drew Lock. Lock threw for 67 touchdowns in those two years under Heupel, 44 in 2017 alone, and he eventually became a second round pick of the Broncos.

From our old friends at Football Study Hall comes one of my favorite stats. Time between plays. I find it far more accurate and consistent than plays per game as a pacing metric. Missouri in 2016 finished first in this department, running a play every 17.9 seconds between plays, blowing away the pack. That number slowed a bit in 2017 to 21.4 seconds, but that was still among the best in the nation.

Heupel’s offense at Missouri was good enough to land him the head coaching job at UCF in 2018 following Scott Frost’s departure to Nebraska. Heupel had some massive shoes to fill as UCF was coming off its famed perfect 13-0 season and a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn. All Heupel did was follow that up with a perfect regular season, and though they came up just short against LSU, this is the same LSU team that would break virtually every record ever the following season and win a National Championship.

In two full seasons in 2018 and 2019, Heupel’s offenses averaged 20.1 seconds between plays and 43.1 points per game. That explosiveness has translated right over to Tennessee in his first year, but it didn’t start so smoothly. With Joe Milton under center, the pace was as expected. 17.8 seconds between play in Tennessee’s opener against Bowling Green, and Heupel was off and running in Knoxville. However, the efficiency was off. They ran the ball effectively, but between the Bowling Green game and the Pitt game prior to Milton’s injury, Tennessee’s passing attack was very lackluster.

As unfortunate as it is to say, Milton getting Wally Pipp’d saved a potentially lost season. Yes, Tennessee blew out BGSU in its opener with Milton, but BGSU is not good. The stats don’t lie, and Milton in that game and the first half against Pitt completed less than seven percent of 20-plus yard passes. It’s frustrating as a coach to have a game plan be executed so well to set up these plays only to see them get squandered at a rate that high. With loads of transfers and lots of injuries, it was safe to say this was a less than ideal start for Heupel’s tenure.

Enter Hendon Hooker. The Virginia Tech transfer who didn’t even know if he’d play football again after a rough battle with COVID last year stepped in for Joe Milton, nearly led the Vols to a comeback against Pitt, and hasn’t looked back since. Let’s take a look at Hooker’s season pass chart as a starter this year (this doesn’t include the Pitt game, just games he’s started).

As you can see, his passing chart spells out exactly what this offense predicates. The quick, short passes and screens as well as great efficiency towards the boundaries within 10 yards. It’s all there, and this passing attack paired with a rushing attack, outside of the Alabama game, have created a great dynamic in Heupel’s machine.

So let’s talk about what it all sets up. Those big plays...I mean, damn. Just look at the efficiency. Hooker has been fantastic and then some down the field, completing a staggering 51.9-percent of his passes beyond 20 yards. This is a fantastic mark, and I don’t mean to continue to pour salt in the wounds of Joe Milton, but Milton had only completed 46.7-percent of his passes in total for the Vols. Of Hooker’s 15 touchdown passes as a starter, seven have come on deep shots.

Overall, the offense is running at 20.8 seconds between plays, a tick slower than usual for Heupel, but that’s still humming nevertheless. Hooker’s downfield passing attack has taken this offense to a whole new level, providing consistency that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. Having a reliable passing attack to couple with a stout rushing game has helped Tennessee’s offense reach numbers it’s not seen in years. Tennessee hasn’t averaged over 30 points per game in five seasons, and right now, they’re sitting pretty, averaging over 37 points, good for 14th in the nation.

Here is the SEC’s offensive breakdown since week three when Hooker took over as the starter. The x-axis is predicted points added per play, also known as PPA (it’s collegefootballdata.com’s EPA metric) while the y-axis is success rate. It’s a thing of beauty for the Vols. Their 0.357 PPA/play is good enough for best in the SEC and top-10 in the nation. Hooker also leads the SEC in both yards per attempt and adjusted yards per attempt. Those same marks are good for sixth and fourth in the entire FBS respectively. Again, the numbers don’t lie, and they are phenomenal. We are looking at potentially one of the best quarterback seasons in Tennessee history.

Hooker has been the answer to everything Heupel, and quite frankly Tennessee, needed this season. The SEC is a living hell if you aren’t Alabama or Georgia. Each year, one or two teams pop up and push either team for division representation in the SEC Championship. Last year it was Florida, and in 2019, LSU. LSU is finding how impossible it is to maintain consistency in a world with two immovable juggernauts. Using wins and losses to measure progress, especially in a situation such as Heupel’s is cruel. Tennessee has scrapped and clawed to remain competitive despite the flurry of transfers following the dismissal of Pruitt on top of the heaping pile of injuries they’ve suffered. Hendon Hooker has found a new lease on life since transferring, and the two have carved out a memorable season in recent Volunteer history.