Tennessee went five quarters into the 2021 season without quarterback controversy. Then Joe Milton was injured and replaced by Hendon Hooker in the second quarter of the Vols’ loss to Pitt.
Hooker was far from perfect against Pittsburgh, making a pair of costly turnovers, but the Virginia Tech transfer showed more good things than bad and was at least modestly better than Milton to this part of the season.
So what is Josh Heupel and his coaching staff going to do about the quarterback position going forward?
Here’s how Heupel answered that question at his weekly press conference Monday.
“I think watching the video— Joe knows this too— there are opportunities to make some plays in the pass game that were certainly there,” Heupel said. “Multiple occasions where we’re running free in the secondary and nobody is relatively close at this level of play against a good defense. Plays that we have to make. Have to be able to throw it, catch it and be a little bit better in protection at times too. It’s certainly things that he can function in and has shown he has the ability to do. I’m just talking through training camp and the way that he practiced. Don’t know where he’s at health wise at this moment.”
So, Joe Milton is still Tennessee’s starting quarterback as of right now, right? Not so fast my friend. Heupel wasn’t willing to go that far when asked if they plan on starting Milton if he’s healthy.
“We’ll find out where he’s at over the course of the week,” Heupel said. “There’s multiple factors that go into who will be taking those snaps.”
It’s worth noting that Joe Milton is still listed as Tennessee’s starting quarterback on its week three depth chart. However, there have been no changes to that depth chart in the two weeks since Heupel released the week one depth chart.
Through two games, Milton is 18-for-35 passing for 189 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. The Michigan transfer has a 106.2 passer rating this season. On the ground, Milton has recorded 98 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries while fumbling twice.
Hooker has completed 16-of-22 passes this season, throwing for 193 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and a 167.3 passer rating. The Virginia Tech transfer proved dynamic using his legs, recording 49 yards on nine carries. On rush attempts that weren’t sacks, Hooker recorded six carries for 69 yards.
“I thought he did some really good things from within the pocket,” Heupel said of Hooker. “He stood in there and got hit on a couple throws and delivered the ball accurately down the football field. Most of his decision making was right. Obviously the pick at the end and the turnover are two costly plays. When you look at what’s transpired the first couple weeks the quarterback has to do a better job of taking care of the football.”
Heupel doesn’t have to make a permanent decision this week. Tennessee Tech is a bad FCS team and the Vols can play two— or even three— quarterbacks and still be effective.
After Tennessee Tech, Heupel doesn’t have the luxury as the Vols play seven straight SEC games before hosting South Alabama to Neyland Stadium on Nov. 20.
The Vols need to have a good idea of what they’re going to do at quarterback by the Florida game and particularly before the Missouri game, which kicks off an important October for Heupel’s team.
Maybe Heupel already knows what he’s going to do at quarterback, but the first year head coach was non committal Monday.