2023 NFL Draft Shrine Bowl prospect roundup: Hendon Hooker elevating himself

Which 2023 NFL Draft prospects distinguished themselves in the eyes of the Shrine Bowl staff this past weekend? Hendon Hooker leads the charge for Tennessee.

Hendon Hooker leads the list of risers on the Shrine Bowl’s 2023 NFL Draft board after a standout performance against Florida. But how does his evaluation expand beyond the production? And what other prospects impressed the Shrine Bowl staff in Week 4?

2023 NFL Draft: Hendon Hooker elevates himself in performance against Florida

The Hendon Hooker hype is reaching unprecedented levels after the Tennessee QB’s performance against Anthony Richardson and the Florida Gators. In a statement win for the Volunteers, Hooker was the team’s primary catalyst. He completed 22 of 28 passes for 349 yards and two touchdowns, and also added over 100 yards and a score on the ground.

Hooker is becoming a national star with his play so far this year. He’s now included on Heisman lists, and his buzz is growing in the NFL draft community. But for Shrine Bowl Director Eric Galko, this is simply an extension of his play last year. He may be taking things to another level, but Galko says this is who he’s shown himself to be at Tennessee. His 2022 play is just confirmation.

“I think what’s really important for Hendon is, last year, he was crazy efficient,” Galko began. “He had three interceptions and didn’t put the ball in harm’s way in many big games or big moments. A really efficient, accurate passer. And the question in our preseason evaluations was, was it an anomaly? Was this the offense being too safe? Or is this who he is — a very sound, efficient QB?”

So far this year, the results have been resounding: Hooker is a sound, efficient QB. He’s rarely put the ball in harm’s way, but as Galko notes, he’s still attacking vertically. He’s hitting Bru McCoy and Cedric Tillman on passes beyond 25 yards. Hooker’s superpower is downfield touch, Galko says. But he’s also been hyper-efficient in the short and intermediate ranges — enough to start challenging preseason perceptions.

“It’s hard for me to imagine a team not saying ‘this guy has starting-level ability in the NFL,'” Galko said. “We can debate — and teams will debate — does he have special traits? Or is he one of those nebulous guys where, we like him a lot, but he’s not an elite talent? We can all hash that out, but I think it’s time to start framing Hooker as a guy who can start and be a good starter in the NFL. To me, that sounds like a first-round pick. But I think for NFL teams — and justifiably so — are his traits enough to match how efficient and how accurate he’s been?”

There’s no denying: Hooker has been phenomenal this year. Through four games, he’s completed 81 of 113 passes (71.7%) for 1,193 yards, eight scores, and zero picks. He’s playing at a high level, and Galko says it’s a reflection of not just his talent, but his mental makeup.

“I talked to Hendon this offseason. I know how he’s wired. He’s wired the way you want your NFL quarterback to be. We’ve been bullish on Hendon. We had a big grade on Hendon in the preseason, and he’s surpassed our expectations because he’s so accurate, he’s so efficient, and he’s still so talented as a passer.”

How do contextual factors impact Hendon Hooker’s stock?

Hooker will be a fascinating evaluation in the 2023 NFL Draft cycle, especially if he keeps playing the way he’s been. His production is superb, and he clearly has starter-level traits on tape. But there are still a couple of contextual factors that might cause hesitation in some circles — the first of which being Hooker’s age.

Hooker is an older prospect, who began his winding collegiate career at Virginia Tech before finding his stride at Tennessee in 2021. He’ll turn 25 years old early next season. By the end of his rookie contract, he’ll be 29 years old. We know that some NFL teams have age benchmarks they stick to — particularly in the early rounds. But we also know that 24-year-old Pitt QB Kenny Pickett went in Round 1 last year.

Taking all this into account, how does age affect Hooker — a similarly ascending prospect with the necessary talent, in a QB class that currently lacks a consensus hierarchy behind C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young?

Galko makes a point to mention first that teams vary on how much age matters. And especially in the middle-to-late rounds, getting a 25-year-old rookie who can be a good pro for a contract or two is a very sound use of resources.

With Hooker, however, who is slowly trending into early-round territory, the dynamic does shift a bit. Nevertheless, Galko is still optimistic there. For him, it all depends on the talent. And Hooker has it.

“When it comes to Hendon and quarterbacks and top-level prospects who are a bit older, I see the point. But if I can get a starting-level QB for four years, and he’s not 30 yet [at the end of his rookie deal], I’m happy to figure out then if I want to pay him more,” Galko reasoned. “When you get to Brandon Weeden — 28 years old — has this person already peaked athletically, and it’s all downhill from here? That’s a different question. But I think Hendon has enough athleticism to go and be a high-level player for a while still.”

2023 NFL Draft
Sep 24, 2022; Knoxville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Hendon Hooker (5) runs with the ball against the Florida Gators during the first quarter at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

There’s also another contextual factor looming over Hooker’s head, however: The nature of his offense under Josh Heupel at Tennessee. It’s been referred to as a one-read offense, that at times appears to rely on formations and predetermined reads. While there are questions that come with that offense, however, Galko says it’s important to give Hooker credit for operating within the offense the way he has been: At a high level.

“I think sometimes we don’t appreciate that pre-snap reads can factor into one-read offenses,” Galko explained. “Hendon is recognizing things pre-snap. It’s not a matter of putting a blindfold on, saying hike, taking it off, and throwing it where it’s supposed to go. It is more than that. It’s a little more formulaic.

“It’s also important to keep in mind too, they are 4-0. They’ve won games with Hendon throwing the ball a lot and scoring touchdowns through the air. We talked about Will Levis a couple weeks ago. Just win the game, keep staying a top team — it’s hard to argue with guys who keep winning because of their success and lack of mistakes. Very few QBs can be as efficient as Hooker has been in this offense.”

Galko also emphasizes another point, one that hearkens back to a previous conversation with the Shrine Bowl staff, where Galko talked about isolating NFL plays for quarterbacks. Always defer to the traits, and refer back to the traits when contextual factors muddy the evaluation.

“If we have questions about the offense, the accuracy is still there,” Galko continued. “He’s making throws to McCoy on the sideline and to Tillman in the red zone. Back-shoulder fades, deep dig routes, deep-post routes. The placement and the accuracy is still there. I don’t want to gloss over the offense — it’ll be a question that teams have to answer. But everything else he’s doing shows me that any old QB can’t run this offense and be 4-0, with zero turnovers and zero turnover-worthy plays.”

Some still won’t be sold on Hooker at this point. But it’s hard to deny the fact that Hooker has made tremendous use of his 2022 season so far. The Shrine Bowl has made a careful note of his hot start. And games against Alabama and Georgia in the coming months will be additional opportunities to prove he truly belongs in the early-round discussion.

Other prospects who impressed the Shrine Bowl staff in Week 4

Turning to the Week 4 college football slate as a whole, Galko names more 2023 NFL Draft prospects who distinguished themselves this past weekend. He starts with a group of offensive prospects — a pair of receivers, a running back, and two experienced blockers on the offensive line. First up: West Virginia WR Bryce Ford-Wheaton, who has 27 catches for 319 yards and four touchdowns so far this year.

“He just looks really physically dominating on every snap,” Galko said of the 6’3″, 224-pound receiver. “The way he plays — he’s the kind of guy that, for those NFL teams who have their quarterbacks watch film to pick out guys they want to draft, every QB is going to look at the film and go ‘yep, I want that guy.’ They want the big, fast guys. They want the freak long athletes. I think every NFL quarterback would want a guy like Ford-Wheaton. He’s been really impressive, building off of the potential he’s shown throughout his career.”

The second WR mentioned is Virginia’s Dontayvion Wicks. He was productive in 2021 but got off to a slow start in 2022. His numbers are starting to pick up, however. Over the past two weeks, he’s caught nine passes for 127 yards.

“Wicks can win off press,” Galko extrapolates, lauding Wicks’ complete skill set. “He’s got very natural body control, and he’s very fluid upfield. There are some concentration drops, which has been a question for him for the past few years. But overall, he’s really smooth as a big, long, impressive athlete.”

One player for whom production hasn’t been a problem is Illinois’ Chase Brown. In fact, Brown is currently the NCAA’s rushing leader, with 95 carries for 604 yards and three touchdowns in four games. The 5’11”, 205-pound back has been nearly unstoppable for defenses. To Galko, he has a brand of talent that’s translatable in the modern NFL and a big-play ability that’s proven in its value.

“He’s got really special contact balance and twitch,” Galko detailed. “He’s kind of a one-cut guy, but he still makes guys miss because he’s so balanced and controlled. I thought he played very well against Chattanooga. He still continues to have big, big games with consistency.”

Now we move to the trenches, where some of Galko’s most effusive praise came. Going back to the Virginia game, but on the other sideline, Galko was impressed by Syracuse offensive tackle Matthew Bergeron. Offensive tackle is one such position where natural athletes can make it look easy. According to Galko, Bergeron is that kind of player, and it shows not just with his mobility, but with his natural balance and coordination.

“He has a really, really effective kick-slide,” Galko explains. “I think it’s good enough — it gets enough depth — but the fact that he’s so in-balance. You talk to the top private O-line coaches — guys like Duke Manyweather, LeCharles Bentley. They’ll tell you that sometimes, it’s not always about the amount of depth you get as a pass blocker, but if you’re always in control and balanced when you’re doing those steps.

“And Bergeron is consistently balanced. I put the word ‘balance’ in his report around four times just from that game. If a guy counters back inside, he’s in control. He can stop the gap-shooting. Against stunts, he’s balanced. He doesn’t wait for contact. He’s going to engage early on and make decisive contact.”

Bergeron’s summer film was impressive, and his 2022 film has only been an extension of that. But moving to the interior line, there’s another prospect that Galko wants to draw attention to — Michigan center Olusegun Oluwatimi.

“In that Michigan-Maryland game, he just played really well,” Galko said of Oluwatimi. “He’s not the biggest or longest guy. But he was really effective at Virginia before this, and he’s been a staple of that Michigan offensive line. I like the way he’s able to consistently win in pass protection. He grapples really well, but he’s a finisher in the run game, too.

“His initial slide ability as a pass blocker is great, but when he engages with 3-techs and the 1-tech, he’s able to finish in space. On the perimeter, the lack of length shows up a bit more, but I think overall, he’s been a great traditional in-a-phone-booth center, who’s a really good pass blocker and a really good run blocker.”

Small-school and non-FBS prospects on the Shrine Bowl’s radar

It’s easy to get tunnel vision at the Power Five level. And across the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and ACC, there’s certainly a lot of ground to cover. But the Shrine Bowl’s scope expands far beyond that.

That’s something that was especially clear this week, as Galko discussed players ranging from UTEP in the C-USA to Shepherd at the Division II level. From UTEP, he brings Praise Amaewhule into focus — a player who has 26.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks over the past four seasons.

“He was really impressive against Boise State,” Galko spoke about Amaewhule. “Praise has really good speed bend, really good speed to power. He’s a 6’2″, 6’3”, 245-pound weak-side defensive end, but he has really good body control. He adjusts in space well. He’s balanced as he penetrates. He brings good use of hands in space, and he’s pretty quick-handed.

“There’s also the finishing ability on the QB. He’s probably more of a later Day 3 pick — a guy that teams want to have in the rotation first. But he really impressed me with his impact felt in that game.”

Production can often be a guiding light when identifying prospects in the Group of Five and at the non-FBS level. That might not be more true for any prospect than it is with Shepherd QB Tyson Bagent.

Bagent was the 2021 Harlon Hill Award winner — essentially the MVP award of Division II football. Across his career at Shepherd, he’s completed 1,115 of 1,632 passes (68%) for 13,983 yards, 131 touchdowns, and just 42 interceptions. He had 5,000 yards and 53 touchdowns in 15 games in 2021, and he’s off to another blistering start in 2022, with 1,529 yards, 13 touchdowns, and just two picks across the first four contests.

The production is simply staggering, and Galko says the evaluation portion is just as flattering for the 6’3″, 210-pound signal-caller. For Galko and the Shrine Bowl staff, one of the larger challenges is gauging athleticism and natural talent at the lower levels. It’s also a complicated issue to weigh the small-school environment. But there’s enough on Bagent’s tape to sustain interest, regardless.

“I have no problem saying he was our top non-FBS quarterback,” Galko says, referring to the preseason scouting process. “He’s a good athlete, an above-average athlete for the QB position. He’s shown that. Against Kutztown, he moved very well, evaded sacks, and made a couple runs upfield. He’ll be tough evaluation for some teams, because how high do you want to put him? But no doubt, he’s talented. He’ll be firmly on the NFL radar. And no doubt, he’ll be one of the top 10-15 senior QBs that NFL teams consider.”

Other small-school 2023 NFL Draft prospects to know

It wouldn’t truly be a Shrine Bowl FCS check-in without seeking input from Shane Coughlin, the Shrine Bowl’s Director of College Scouting. Like the entire Shrine Bowl staff, Coughlin himself is hard at work this time of year. But he was gracious enough to send in some comments on some of the top FCS performers over the past couple of weeks.

Coughlin kicked off his thoughts with a familiar name — North Dakota State’s Hunter Luepke. But he also brought up tight end Noah Gindorff and offensive tackle Cody Mauch as two phenomenal blockers who help to accelerate Luepke’s success.

Gindorff, in particular, may have a future as a blocking specialist at the next level. And he’s also the team’s leader in receptions, to boot. In the words of Coughlin: “Gindorff is a big, physical and uniquely built tight end who is an absolute people mover. He’s consistently sound with his placement and really controls his assignment with his initiating punch and is relentless to drive and finish.”

Coughlin also made mention of Princeton WR Andrei Iosivas — an FCS prospect who was named as a Feldman Freak in the summer. Iosivas stands around 6’3″, 200 pounds, with a documented 39″ vertical and likely sub-4.4 speed. Coughlin says the dynamic ability is very visible on Iosivas’ tape, but he’s not just a vertical threat.

“He’s a prototype of prototypes,” Coughlin said of Iosivas, who had two scores against Stetson. “He’s tall and long with rare speed and athleticism — an Olympic-caliber track athlete who is a three-time conference heptathlon champion with a 6.71 60-meter dash. The athleticism is easy to spot on film and translatable to huge route-running upside. He finished over the top of Stetson’s defenders twice, and there’s so much easy twitch and fluidity to all his movements.”

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