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How the Lions can get the most out of Hendon Hooker

How offensive coordinator Ben Johnson can bridge the gap between Hooker’s offense in Tennessee, and his NFL system in Detroit

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Kentucky v Tennessee Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

It is a tale as old as time.

As March gives way to April, the NFL media landscape looks for one more quarterback to jam into the first round of the upcoming draft. Chances are, dear reader, you are old enough to remember some recent examples. Such as Christian Hackenberg. Davis Mills. Davis Webb. Mason Rudolph.

And this year, Hendon Hooker.

However, the Tennessee quarterback did not come off the board in the first round, despite speculation that he could learn his NFL destination on Thursday night. Instead Hooker had to wait until the third round, when the Detroit Lions finally turned in a card with his name on it.

Hooker is headed to the NFC North.

Even with Hooker’s incredible production a season ago — he completed 69.6% of his passes for 3,135 yards and 27 touchdowns last season, against just a pair of interceptions — there were questions regarding his NFL evaluation.

Two of those are easy to outline, and equally easy to dismiss in my opinion. The third, however, might be the reason Hooker slid, and requires a bit more thinking.

The first two “red flags,” so to speak, are Hooker’s age, and his recent knee injury. Hooker is already 25, set to turn 26 in January, which makes him an older prospect.

Then there is the recent knee injury. Hooker suffered a left ACL tear at the end of the season.

An older prospect coming off a knee injury? Usually not a great combination.

However, there are rebuttals to those concerns. This is not the NFL of years gone by, where quarterbacks hold a clipboard for three seasons or so before they see the field. As soon as you can play, you will. Furthermore, players, including quarterbacks, are playing longer. So provided everything else works out, the Lions could get a decade of football from him.

As for the knee injury, as we saw on Wednesday, Hooker is already working on dropbacks and is on track to be ready for training camp. Sure, Detroit might not give him the Week 1 starting job, especially with Jared Goff in place, but with the advances in medical science being what they are, the knee injury is not a big concern.

The third concern, however, is more notable.

The offense that Hooker ran at Tennessee.

Josh Heupel’s system has its roots in a few different offenses. Heupel came of age in an Air Raid system, playing at Oklahoma with Mike Leach as his offensive coordinator, and there are Air Raid elements and themes in the Tennessee offense. There is also a throughline from Waco to Knoxville, as a lot of Tennessee’s offense is drawn from the system Art Briles installed in Baylor:

The Tennessee offense looks most like the Briles offense with receivers split extremely wide, a relentless tempo that keeps defenses from substituting, frequent vertical shots and a devotion to running the ball. But Heupel hiring Iowa State tight ends coach Alex Golesh to be his offensive coordinator at UCF — replacing Briles disciple and current Oklahoma OC Jeff Lebby — represented another shift. Golesh came with Heupel to Tennessee and has expanded the run game and added elements of burliness to help the Vols in short yardage and the red zone.

Golesh started studying the Baylor offense back when he was a grad assistant at Oklahoma State in 2008 and said he saw it change dramatically over several years.

“There’s portions of that [Baylor offense] — there’s also portions of what I did with Mike Leach as a player,” Heupel told The Athletic. “There’s portions of a little bit of everything. We evolve and change all the time. I mean, we’ve been different with every quarterback we have.”

That system punished defenses last season — the Volunteers ranked No. 1 in scoring offense this past season with 46.1 points per game — but it also made life easy on Hooker. On many route concepts, Hooker was asked with reading one side of the field, often with the receivers on the other side not even running routes. This was a function of the Briles system: If you are going to be using tempo to keep the pressure on, sometimes your receivers need to rest, and that might have to happen on a play focusing on the other side of the field.

Then on other route concepts, the splits were so wide that the game almost turned into isolation football, getting players into wide open spaces to operate.

For example, look at this touchdown pass to Jalin Hyatt against Kentucky. The Volunteers align in a 2x2 formation, using massive splits, particularly to the field side of the formation:

When Kentucky spins into single-high coverage, there is no chance the safety in the middle of the field can get to this route, so when Hyatt breaks open, Hooker just has to make a decent throw, and the Volunteers have an explosive play in the passing game.

Or take this touchdown against LSU, another deep shot to Hyatt, which is basically a single-receiver route. The isolated receiver on the right side of the field barely runs what you might consider a route, and Hooker is reading Hyatt’s slot fade right from the snap:

Isolation football.

Here’s what Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN’s incredible NFL Matchup show had to say about Hooker and the Tennessee offense, in a meaty piece from Doug Farrar of USA Today:

“It’s more of a true Air Raid offense than most teams run in college football,” Cosell told Farrar of Tennessee’s offense. “The splits are exceedingly wide, and because the wide side of the field is wider in college football than on an NFL field, it’s really a factor. So, what you rarely get is receivers pressed. They get free access off the ball. Jalin Hyatt can explode off the ball, and he had very good hands to catch the ball, often on the move. Just by its very nature, there’s not a lot of throws to the middle of the field. I happen to like Hooker’s skill set quite a bit, and his skill set is clearly translatable to the NFL, but he’s probably going to be one of those quarterbacks that, when he gets to the NFL, it’ll look like there’s 15 defenders on defense. Especially on those throws with timing and anticipation over the middle of the field.

“I’m not saying he can’t make those throws — that’s not the point. The game is played more in the middle of the field in the NFL, and those throws are more part and parcel. There’s a learning curve to those kinds of throws by NFL standards. Again, we’re not saying he can’t make those throws; just that he hasn’t done a lot of them. And even the anticipatory throws he made were more open-type anticipatory throws than the stick-type tight-window throws.”

Now to Hooker’s credit, there are examples of him attacking the middle of the field, even with some anticipation. This example comes from Tennessee’s game against Missouri, and you’ll see Hooker connecting with Hyatt on an in-breaking route over the middle, with a little anticipation on the throw:

Here against Georgia Hooker and the Volunteers convert a fourth down in the fourth quarter with another throw attacking the middle of the field:

Perhaps the best example of this concept comes on this completion against Ball State, as Hooker has to anticipate the secondary window on a crossing route working from right to left:

This is a great play from Hooker, but you also get the sense that he waits too long given the concept. As this is a mirrored route concept, with crossing routes coming from both sides of the field, the two receivers almost collide on the play.

Probably not how they drew it up.

But even these examples serve to bolster one of Cosell’s points: That the space created by the formations and the splits means that even some throws over the middle, or made with anticipation, come when Hooker is still targeting open areas of the field. Bridging his college experience to an NFL system might take some time.

However, is that not the job of a coach? Finding a way to cater to the strengths — and experience — of their new quarterback? If you are old enough to remember some of the other quarterbacks who caught that late first-round buzz, you probably remember a time when Air Raid quarterbacks were considered non-viable prospects when it came to the NFL.

Now every NFL offense has some Air Raid designs in their playbook.

Perhaps Hooker is a few years ahead of his time, and as Heupel’s system and philosophy start to spread (football is a copycat game after all) more coaches — and players — will be working their way into the NFL having come from a similar offense. But getting him to the point where, to use Cosell’s analogy, he feels like there are 11 defenders on the field again, and not 15, will be critical to his NFL development, and success.

That’s the challenge that lies ahead for the Lions, and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. Bridging the gap between Heupel’s system, and what Detroit did this past season with Goff. As I discussed in this piece diving into Goff, Johnson put his quarterback in a position to succeed with some layered route concepts, creative use of play-action designs, and some half-field reads.

Those elements, in particular the half-field reads, will ease the transition for Hooker. And one of the designs that Johnson called for Goff? Y-Cross, a staple of the Air Raid offense that Goff operated at California:

Well, here is Hooker running a variant of Y-Cross last season. Watch as he peeks the isolated route on the right before coming to the middle of the field, resetting his feet, and delivering a strike to Hyatt on the crossing route:

The Tennessee quarterback might have slid because of those concerns, but he might have landed in a great spot for those concerns to be eased, thanks to how Johnson constructed the Lions offense a season ago.