‘It’s Extremely Rare’: Hooker, Milton Fostering Strong Relationship

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    Joe Milton III and Hendon Hooker battled to be the 2021 Tennessee starting quarterback throughout the summer and fall camp approaching Josh Heupel’s first season.

    Anyone reading this knows what happens next. Milton won the starting job, struggled in the season opener and in the first quarter of the Vols’ week two matchup against Pitt when he exited the game with an ankle injury.

    Hooker replaced Milton, gave the Vols the consistency Milton couldn’t and went on to have one of the most efficient passing seasons in Tennessee history.

    Hooker turned down the NFL and is the first Tennessee quarterback on the preseason All-SEC teams since Josh Dobbs in 2016.

    That should have been the end of the story. Milton wins the job in the short term but Hooker beats him out in the long term only for Milton to enter the transfer portal for the second time in as many seasons.

    Except, Milton never entered the transfer portal. The former Michigan quarterback returned to Knoxville for his redshirt senior season.

    “No reason to,” Milton said of his decision to stay during Tennessee’s in house media day. “I am having fun. I am learning something new every day. I am enjoying life.”

    Milton’s return gives Tennessee something becoming increasingly rare in college football— a veteran back up quarterback with playing experience. In the transfer portal era, quarterbacks are bound to transfer once a clear path to playing time is no longer visible.

    Sure, Milton struggled a season ago and Tennessee hopes that he won’t have to play in competitive games. But if the worst happens and Hooker is injured, Milton’s experience will be invaluable over true freshman Tayven Jackson.

    “It is probably something that is going to be rapidly disappearing, to have a backup quarterback with experience,” quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle said after Tuesday’s practice. 

    One, it’s extremely rare to have that kind of dynamic. But two, it really speaks to what Coach Heupel has built here culture-wise. I know I’ve said that a couple times in here already, but it’s the truth that these guys all understand that we’re all trying to get something bigger, and everyone has a role. Right now, you think you know what your role is, but you have no idea after that first snap what everybody on this football team’s role is going to be.”

    It’s hard to oversell the importance of being content and happy when understanding Milton’s decision. Playing time is great, but it’s not the only thing. It doesn’t guarantee happiness.

    Ask Phil Mickelson if the $200 million LIV Golf is paying him has made him happier. The scenarios aren’t perfectly comparable, but you get the point. More goes into happiness than what’s noticeable on the surface level.

    Milton isn’t only content at Tennessee with a pleasant working relationship with Hooker. The two are roommates and extremely close friends.

    The former Michigan quarterback’s joy was on display during media days. Milton was as relaxed as he’s been in any Tennessee interview, beaming with positivity when discussing his relationship with Hooker and his skills as a spaghetti chef.

    And in an age of searching for greener grass, Milton is patiently awaiting another chance in Knoxville. Whether that comes this season due to injury or next offseason if he uses his extra, COVID-19, year of eligibility his chance of success will be higher due to his patience and relationship with Hooker.

    That relationship bodes well on the field where there’s no bad blood and the two provide needed feedback for one another.

    “We are always nitpicking at each other,” Hooker said. “We feel like we are our biggest critics. Anytime I come off the field Joe has something to say and anytime he comes off the field I have something to say. No matter if it’s a touchdown, an interception or whatever it may be. We just kind of feed off each other.”

    Having Milton around also gives Hooker another asset. Being the quarterback at the University of Tennessee comes with a lot of pressure and a lot of criticism when things go poorly. Milton learned that quickly when he struggled early and ran out of bounds as the clock expired in Tennessee’s, 31-26, loss against Ole Miss.

    Milton’s friendship gives Hooker someone he can turn to who knows what he’s facing.

    “Really, never having someone in the room with you who’s been in the position you’re in before is a new thing for me and him,” Hooker said. “We felt like it was needed that we both just feed off each other.”

    Milton’s presence in Knoxville may not lead to Tennessee winning any more than it would have without him. However, it does bring comfort. Comfort to Hooker. Comfort to Tennessee’s coaches. Comfort to Vol fans that Heupel is building the right — positive — culture around his football program.

    Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.

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