Hendon Hooker tears ACL as South Carolina stuns Tennessee: Where do Vols go from here?

By David Ubben, Joe Rexrode and Dane Brugler

South Carolina toppled No. 5 Tennessee in a 63-38 upset blowout Saturday when Volunteers quarterback Hendon Hooker retired with a cruciate ligament tear. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Tennessee’s second loss in three weeks comes after South Carolina led the entire game.
  • Gamecocks quarterback Spencer Rattler had career-best 438 yards on 30 of 37 passes and six touchdowns.
  • Hooker suffered a noncontact left leg injury in a rush early in the fourth quarter and was later ruled out. The Heisman hopeful left the tournament with 247 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
  • The team announced Sunday that Hooker “ruptured a cruciate ligament in his left knee Saturday night” and confirmed the senior QB would be leaving for the NFL.

the athlete‘s instant analysis:

Impact on season and Heisman races

Hooker’s game that season put him in the middle of the Heisman Trophy conversation, since Tennessee was well positioned to qualify for the college football playoffs. The Vols were 18 behind when Hooker went down, but the injury felt like punctuation for a nightmare trip to Columbia for a Tennessee team that had enjoyed a dream season.

Hooker fumbled the game and South Carolina scored to move up to 25th and the Vols need to beat Vanderbilt next week to qualify for a likely Sugar Bowl spot. – Ubben

Who replaces Hooker?

The Vols will be rolling with Joe Milton. Milton won the starting job for the start of the 2021 season but lost his job to Hooker, who caught fire midseason and took him over this season.

Milton’s arm strength is on par with the best in the sport, but his accuracy has been patchy throughout his Michigan and Tennessee career. He fits in well with the Vols offense, which is heavily influenced by vertical routes, and has shown improved accuracy in spot use this year. – Ubben

Tennessee’s dream season shattered

And just like that, Tennessee’s dream season dissolved in a cloud of South Carolina touchdowns and Vols slips. This program is still ahead of schedule under Josh Heupel. But with Hooker moving on, it will likely have to be the 12-team era before the Vols threaten for a CFP spot again. – Rexrode

What that means for Hooker’s Draft Stock

As long as the surgery and rehab go well, I don’t think the ACL injury will even drop Hooker’s draft grade. However, it represents a missed opportunity to potentially level up throughout the design process. Rather than show off his skills at the Senior Bowl and Combine, he will be sidelined while other quarterbacks try their best and audition for NFL scouts.

We’ve seen players battle injuries during the drafting process and still get drafted where they were expected to be before the injury. QB Tua Tagovailoa is a prime example. He suffered a dislocated hip in November prior to the 2020 NFL Draft but was still a top-five pick. Jameson Williams, albeit at a different position, tore his ACL in the college football playoffs last year and had surgery last January before being drafted by Detroit as the No. 12.

Before the injury, Hooker was considered a second- or third-round pick. There’s still a big chance he’ll be drafted on day two. — Brugler

Statistics of the game

(Photo: Jeff Blake / USA Today)

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