Virginia Tech Miami Football

Tech QB Hendon Hooker dives for a first-half touchdown over Miami safety Robert Knowles. The Hokies led 28-0 at one point but needed a late score to pull out the ACC victory.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla.—What was on Hendon Hooker’s mind after leading Virginia Tech to a thrilling 42-35 road win at Miami on Saturday in his first college start?

Was the redshirt sophomore quarterback talking about the three touchdown passes he threw to tight end Dalton Keene? The absolute dime of a pass he dropped to Damon Hazelton on the game-winning drive?

Or something more obscure, like Miami’s strange decision to go for a two-point conversion on its penultimate score, the Hurricanes’ missed extra point that kept the game tied, or even that moment in the first half when Tech linebacker Alan Tisdale vomited on the field just before a snap?

No, Hooker, the son of a former NFL quarterback, was mostly focused on his own blunt assessment of his passing performance.

“I had a terrible day throwing the ball,” Hooker said, bringing a sobering tone to an otherwise jubilant postgame. “You know, I just missed some open balls that were overthrown to Damon. I could’ve been more accurate.”

For sure, Hooker has much work to do as he continues to develop as a passer. It’s the reason he hasn’t been starting for Tech (3-2) this season in the first place, instead being given the reins five games in, in an attempt to change the team’s direction.

Hooker, whose father, Alan, starred at North Carolina A&T and then signed with the Dallas Cowboys, rightly will find throws he could have made Saturday when he reviews video. But he’ll also see himself directing an offense that built a 28-0 lead—thanks certainly in part to a defense that forced five first-half turnovers—and a rookie quarterback leading a game-winning drive on the road.

“I’m proud of how Hendon handled the promotion, if you will. How he went out there and competed, took care of the football,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said. “And then have the poise to go and make some plays down the stretch I thought was obviously important. The challenge for him will be to learn from this game, put this game ultimately behind us, and move forward to the next one.”

Perhaps that’s the message Hooker received before his less-than-glowing assessment of himself in the press conference. Maybe a young player adjusting to a new role just wanted to avoid complacency.

Hooker went 10 of 20 for 184 yards and three touchdowns. The 6-foot-4, 228-pound Greensboro native also ran for 76 yards and the game’s first touchdown. Teammates said he commanded the huddle and played with poise throughout the wild game.

“I think he was the same way the whole time. He was just confident, composed,” said Keene. “When you’ve got a new quarterback in there, everyone else has got to elevate their game, too, and try to cover for him. But we didn’t have to do that. He played great.”

Hooker said the coaches told him Monday of their decision to make him the starter.

Like many things in the chaotic Tech program, Hooker’s ascension to the starting job took a circuitous route, one that includes him entering the NCAA’s transfer portal after last season, only to return to back up Ryan Willis.

But after the 45-10 home debacle against Duke, Fuente and his staff decided it was time to give Willis the hook and Hooker the ball.

“As far as the decision, those things are never easy,” Fuente said. “Ryan’s worked incredibly hard. We’ll still need Ryan as the season goes along.”

What doomed Willis was his struggles with ball security, the very trait that helped him win the job in fall camp. He threw five interceptions and lost two fumbles in the first four games, though of those seven turnovers, five came in the first two contests.

Now, it’s Hooker’s turn. The kid who grew up watching video of former Philadelphia Eagles great Randall Cunningham, a dual-threat quarterback long before that style was all the rage, gets his shot to spark Tech’s offense.

He’ll make his first home start Saturday against FCS Rhode Island (1-4), a team giving up 34.2 points per game. His coaches are likely to give him the same marching orders they did at Miami.

“They said, ‘Play confident. Cut it loose. Just play your game,’” Hooker said.

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