Hooker’s emergence key to Hokies’ recent success

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Photo courtesy of VT Athletics
Redshirt sophomore Hendon Hooker hasn’t turned the ball over and has provided a spark to Virginia Tech’s rushing attack

Virginia Tech’s football program found out Sunday that it had made a return to The Associated Press’ top 25 national poll, but the Hokies spent little time in thinking about that. They went right out to the practice field in hopes of continuing their recent winning ways.
The Hokies moved to 7-3 on the season (4-2 in the ACC) after blasting Georgia Tech 45-0 in Atlanta Saturday afternoon. The game marked Tech’s most complete performance to date. The Hokies amassed 461 yards of offense, held Georgia Tech to just 134, did not have a turnover and committed just two penalties.
Much of the Hokies’ resurgence – they have won five of their past six games – can be attributed to the insertion of Hendon Hooker into the starting lineup as the quarterback. Tech head coach Justin Fuente made the move after the 45-10 loss to Duke, and Hooker has won all five of his starts. Tech’s only loss in its recent streak came when Hooker sat out the Notre Dame game because of an injury.
To date, Hooker has completed 61 percent of his passes for 973 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. Those numbers may surprise many fans since Hooker hadn’t thrown a pass before this season, but Fuente is not one of them.
“I will say this, it was very evident in camp the work that Hendon had put in during the summertime,” Fuente said at his Monday news conference. “I was really pleased with him. I’m not sure what comments I made during fall camp about Hendon, but I’m pretty sure they were complimentary because, in all honesty, I really felt he had made large strides towards improvement.”

The Hokies have averaged 448.6 yards per game since Hooker entered the lineup. In contrast, Tech has averaged just 337.8 yards per game in the games in which he hasn’t started.
Tech also is averaging 219.4 yards rushing per game in Hooker’s starts. In the other five starts, the Hokies have averaged just 138.2 yards rushing per game.
But Fuente looks at more than the numbers when he analyzes Hooker’s play.
“He’s handled the emotions,” Fuente said. “He’s played on the road. He’s been calm and been able to play the next play, and for the most part, execute what we’ve asked him to do.”
Hooker and the rest of the Hokies offense probably face their biggest challenge of the season Saturday when Pittsburgh comes to town. The Panthers lead the ACC in sacks (45) and rank second in the league in total defense (298.0 ypg).
But Hooker has the Hokies feeling very good about themselves these days, at least on offense.
“I do think he has confidence in himself, and the kids believe in him,” Fuente said. “He’s played competitive sports for some time. I say that meaning he was a competitive basketball player. He’s kind of been in the arena in terms of playing quarterback, playing basketball in competitive situations. He doesn’t back down from the competition part of it and seems very comfortable in his own skin. And the kids, they respond to that and enjoy him.”
Here are some other notes from Monday’s news conference:
Tech cornerback Caleb Farley intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown in the Hokies’ romp over Georgia Tech. The redshirt sophomore is becoming the lockdown cornerback that the staff desperately wanted and needed, as Farley leads the ACC in passes defensed (breakups and interceptions) with 15 and is tied for the league lead with four interceptions.
“I think practice has been the biggest thing,” Fuente said in explanation of Farley’s quality work. “He just continues to work on his craft. We know he’s talented. He’s continued to embrace the things that he knows he needs to work on. He’s taken coaching and focused on the details of playing the position. It’s nice to see him get to reap the benefits of his hard work.”
The college coaches, however, evidently aren’t quite impressed enough with Tech’s recent streak to place the Hokies in the top 25 of the coaches’ poll. Even Fuente didn’t vote for his team. The fourth-year head coach takes his role as a voter seriously and doesn’t feel his team has earned a top-25 ranking.
“I don’t know. I just didn’t. That a good enough reason?” Fuente said, laughing, when asked why he didn’t vote his team in the top 25. “It’s hard when you get this late – the bottom part [of the poll]. The top part’s not that hard, but the bottom part is really hard. And I take it seriously. I do put thought into it.”
The Hokies are the first team outside of the poll, receiving the most votes of that group. Pittsburgh is receiving votes in both polls.

Tech will hold its annual Senior Day and recognize the five seniors on the team before the game against Pittsburgh. The group includes just one senior starter in Reggie Floyd, who enters the game with 33 career starts and more than 200 tackles. Floyd has made many big plays in his career, but Fuente remembered a play that Floyd made as a true freshman against Pittsburgh when he entered late in the game as a member of the punt team and executed his role.
“We’ve used that as an example several times of being prepared,” Fuente said. “It might have been the only rep he took of punts the entire year. I’m pretty sure about that. To me, that said a lot about him as a young player, that he was going to be prepared and that he was eager to get his chance. He’s continued to improve, both as a player and as a leader. He loves playing football, and that shows in his work ethic throughout the offseason and at practice and ultimately on gameday.”

— Jimmy Robertson, VT Athletics