Wednesday, March 22News That Matters

NFL teams in line to see ‘a better version of Hendon Hooker’

MOBILE, Ala. — Former Tennessee star quarterback Hendon Hooker is on track to be healthy in time for his opening NFL training camp this summer, he told ESPN on Tuesday.

At the Senior Bowl, Hooker flashed the familiar halogen grin that accompanied his rise to stardom at Tennessee the past two seasons. He told ESPN he has begun working out after Dr. Neal S. ElAttrache repaired the torn ACL in his left knee on Dec. 13.

“It will be a better version of Hendon Hooker, the best we’ve seen yet,” he said when asked what he’ll look like upon his return.

Hooker won’t participate in the Senior Bowl game on Saturday, but he accepted an invitation here to meet with NFL teams and further familiar himself with NFL offenses. He’s perhaps the most intriguing player here this week, as he surged into becoming a top Heisman Trophy candidate and a potential high-round draft pick with his dominant play for the Vols this season. That searing streak to stardom ended suddenly with a torn ACL on Nov. 20 against South Carolina.

“There were a lot of emotions, missing the game and missing being around my teammates,” he said. “There’s been a lot of jokes and laughter and also going back and watching tape and tearing up.”

Hooker threw for 58 touchdowns and five interceptions the past two seasons at Tennessee and led the Vols to a No. 2 ranking in the Associated Press poll, the highest they’ve been ranked since 2001. Hooker said that he has met with close to 20 teams, joking that there’s many to count. He said he’s had a few “double meetings” with teams but declined to name the teams. He let them know that he’ll be ready for camp this summer and is planning to be ready for full contact by the start of the preseason.

Hooker will not run at Tennessee’s Pro Day on March 30, but he plans to warm up and “stride it out” to show how well he’s moving.

“I feel great,” Hooker said. “I’m moving around. I’m excited to get back to my regular self. My cerebral side has elevated to a whole other level. I’m continuing to build that and my leadership skills and communication skills. I’ll have that chip on my shoulder whenever I get back.”

Hooker has been working out and rehabbing in California. He said after the surgery, there was an adjustment process of learning to walk on crutches, shower and sleep sitting up because of the injury.

He made a point to thank his sister, Nile, for moving out to California with him and help him navigate his comeback. His on-field quarterback training has been done by Steve Calhoun and Jordan Palmer, as he said that throwing while sitting allows him to both experiment with different arm angles and simulate deep balls. He’s working out with fellow college quarterbacks Max Duggan (TCU), Clayton Tune (Houston), Will Levis (Kentucky) and Dorian Thompson-Robinson (UCLA).

“I’m doing really well, putting 100 percent weight on it,” Hooker said. “I’m able to do exercises without my brace. I’ll throw sitting down some. Nothing too crazy on my knee where I’m twisting and turning on it, just taking it slow and all the precautions.”

Hooker said that while out in California in December, he would wake up at 4 a.m. for the Vols’ 7 a.m. Zoom meetings at the Orange Bowl. He said he wanted to understand the game plan to help out Joe Milton, the Tennessee backup, and “be transparent” when they were chatting about the game.

When teams have asked Hooker what kind of player they are getting, he has responded this way: “I want to be smart and learn and want to come in and be extremely competitive. A dynamic guy who is hungry for betterment of himself on and off the field. A dynamic guy in the pocket and a good deep-ball thrower and an accurate thrower. And an athletic player. A competitor.”

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