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ESPN Sizes Up the Tennessee Quarterback Battle During 2023 Offseason

Tennessee Football
Tennessee QBs Nico Iamaleava (No. 12) and Joe Milton III (No. 7). Photo by Rocky Top Insider/Ric Butler.

While Tennessee does not have a quarterback competition going into the 2023 college football season, the Vols’ quarterback room has still been a big topic of conversation here during the offseason. All eyes are on Tennessee after Hendon Hooker took the offense to new heights in 2022 with an Anthony Richardson-sized veteran like Joe Milton III now taking the reigns.

Oh, and Tennessee brought in quarterback Nico Iamaleava this year, who finished the 2023 recruiting cycle as On3 Sports’ No.1 prospect.

Since taking over the final two games of the season last year, including an impressive win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl, Milton has been locked in as the starting quarterback for Tennessee in 2023 barring injury. Milton is a five-year college football veteran and needs a big final year in Knoxville to elevate his status in the upcoming NFL Draft. The third-year Tennessee quarterback has built trust and familiarity with both Josh Heupel and offensive coordinator Joey Halzle and looks to be ready to take charge.

As mentioned previously, while Tennessee doesn’t necessarily have a quarterback competition happening, the Vols’ were still thrown into a quarterback battle roundup article from ESPN this week. ESPN also believes that Tennessee’s offense is already in Milton’s hands.

“Heupel and the entire offensive staff are excited to see Milton operate now that he knows (and the team knows) that he’s clearly the man at quarterback,” ESPN’s Chris Low wrote. “Milton beat out Hooker as the starter when he transferred from Michigan, but it became clear a few games into the 2021 season that Hooker was the better quarterback… He has to prove he can do it over the course of the entire season, and all the while, the Vols know they have their quarterback of the future ready (Iamaleava) if Milton stumbles or experiences injury problems.”

The entire Tennessee team recently wrapped up a four-week spring camp this past month which included three scrimmages at Neyland Stadium.

For Joe Milton, the spring was about refining his craft, being the leader of the quarterback room and the offense, and working to help some of his newer teammates.

“[Joe] absolutely has another level he can and should go to,” Halzle said to the media during spring camp. “He’s older but that was really only his fourth start for us, I believe. He’s got a lot of ball left to play. He made a lot of really good decisions, he protected the football, he threw it aggressively when it was time to throw it aggressively. He’s doing that at a high level now, too. I’ve been really pleased with him, but he definitely has another level that he can reach.”

More from RTI: Former Georgia Quarterback Shocks Co-Host With Tennessee Football and Joe Milton Take

For Iamaleava, on the other hand, the spring was about becoming familiar with the Tennessee playbook, style, and culture. Iamaleava did have the head start of practicing with the Vols as an early enrollee this past December, but the spring slate is a different animal entirely.

“He’s been really good,” Halzle said about Iamaleava during spring camp. “He’s mature beyond his years – he doesn’t act like a freshman. But with that said, the first time you take the field, no matter how prepared, you are going from high school to college. It’s fast, there’s a lot more on you. We put as much on the quarterback as anybody in the country, if not more. It’s a lot. He’s handling it well with a great attitude. He stays positive and he competes at a really high level. He just lets his athleticism take over too which is fun to watch. So he’s been great, but it is hard. People forget how hard it is to come in and play as a true freshman at any level of college football. It’s just a different area.”

Tennessee has two talented quarterbacks at the top of the list in the room, but in fairness, in different situations as things stand right now. Milton, the starter heading into 2023, is a battle-tested veteran that has seen a lot of football in his days and is ready for his opportunity to shoot up the charts as Hendon Hooker did last season. Iamaleava, on the other hand, is an uber-talented young prospect that is still getting his footing as he flashes moments of brilliance on the field.

Iamaleava’s upside gives Tennessee wiggle room throughout the season, but the keys to the Ferrari are in Milton’s pocket. And that seems to be fairly widely known.

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