Wednesday, March 29, 2023
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Jimmy Hyams: Tennessee vs Kentucky could be an epic quarterback battle

Almost two weeks ago, I witnessed the greatest quarterback battle I have ever seen at Neyland Stadium.

It featured Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker against the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Bryce Young of Alabama.

Hooker passed for 385 yards and five touchdowns in dismantling the SEC’s top-ranked defense.

Young, who had missed the previous six quarters of play due to a shoulder injury, was 35 of 52 for 455 yards and two touchdowns while escaping UT’s pass rush like Houdini.

Could we see another epic quarterback faceoff when No. 3 Tennessee (7-0) hosts No. 19 Kentucky (6-2) Saturday night?

Hooker is considered one of the top three candidates for the Heisman Trophy.

Kentucky’s Will Levis is considered the No. 2 quarterback prospect in the NFL draft, according to Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus and Todd McShay of ESPN.

Levis, a Penn State transfer, has the physical stature (6-2, 232) and cannon arm that NFL scouts covet.

Levis has not been as productive of a college quarterback as Hooker, but he has had moments of brilliance.

In a 45-42 defeat to Tennessee last year, Levis was 31 of 49 passing for 372 yards and three touchdowns. He ran 15 times for 47 yards and two scores in the best performance of his career. But he also had a critical pick six.

Against Kentucky last year, Hooker passed for 316 yards and four scores and ran 11 times for 41 yards.

Tennessee linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary was on the Penn State staff when Levis was a Nittany Lion.

“Super, super talented guy,’’ said Jean-Mary, who praised Levis’ athletic ability. “I think he’s really settled in as a quarterback. He has a rocket arm, very accurate, and he’s making really good decisions with the football.

“You guys all see the draft primers. He’s very well thought of by those guys at the next level, and you can see why. The talent kind of jumps off the screen, so he’s going to be a big-time challenge for us.’’

Likewise, Hooker will be a big-time challenge for Kentucky.

Interestingly, both are transfers. Levis couldn’t beat out Sean Clifford at Penn State. Hooker only started 15 of 25 games at Virginia Tech.

Mark Richt, former head coach at Georgia and Miami and now color analyst for the ACC Network, never understood why then-Hokies coach Justin Fuente didn’t play Hooker more.

“We’re still trying to figure out why Coach Fuente didn’t really – he didn’t like the kid,’’ Richt said at the Knoxville Quarterback Club earlier this week.

“Course, Coach Fuente doesn’t have a job anymore.’’

Dave Hooker and Chris Landry discuss the Tennessee-Kentucky match-up

While Hooker was outstanding in 2021, he’s even better this season, said Vols quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle. He pointed to the 78-yard touchdown pass Hooker threw to Jalin Hyatt to break a 35-35 tie against Alabama.

“He walked up to the line of scrimmage and I was watching him like, `Oh, here he goes,’’’ Halzle said. “He sent Jalin on a vertical and took it based on the look he saw. That was his call from the line of scrimmage, so as soon as he sees a look that he likes or a look he doesn’t like, he knows what he’s getting into, and he’s got the full playbook at his disposal.’’

I asked Halzle if Hooker is a better decision-maker this year than last.

“He’s highly intelligent and I think he’s always made good decisions,’’ Halzle said. “I think this year what has made him even more special is he’s even more aggressive. That’s what we talk about in our room at this point, we’ve got to be able to walk the line of aggressive and reckless and he walks it extremely well. He’s extremely aggressive but doesn’t cross the line over to reckless and put the ball in danger.’’

Halzle also complimented Hooker’s pocket presence – something UT works on daily.

“I believe that’s where the game is won and lost,’’ he said. “What makes Hendon special is that when it does start to break down, now he’s got the eject button and he can go and he can run it as well as anybody in the country, across all positions.

“So he does a great job of hanging in the pocket, working in the pocket and then when it’s time to go, he gets out vertically and stretches the defense really quickly.’’

Hooker’s numbers this season are much better than Levis’. Hooker has completed 70.6% of his passes for 2,093 yards and 18 touchdowns to one interception. He has run for 315 yards and three scores.

Levis has completed 69.5% of his passes for 1,635 yards and 13 touchdowns to five picks. Levis, who didn’t play in Kentucky’s loss to South Carolina, has minus-49 rush yards and two scores.

Hooker’s numbers compare favorably – but fall a bit short — to those of former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who won the 2019 Heisman Trophy.

Through seven games in 2019, Burrow was 173 of 218 passes (79.8%) for 2,484 yards and 29 touchdowns with three interceptions. He had 94 rush yards and two scores.

Burrow had 2,578 total yards and accounted for 31 scores in seven games.

Hooker has 2,408 total yards and has accounted for 21 scores.

Burrow had one of the greatest seasons ever for a college quarterback.

Hooker is just having a great season.

Whether that adds up to Tennessee’s first Heisman winner remains to be seen.

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  1. I sure would like the Heisman King to rein in Knoxville in 2022 but, it perhaps, will take wins over Ky and Ga to accomplish the same. It certainly would be great for the UT FB program.

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