Josh Heupel- Fall practice

Tennessee head football coach Josh Heupel at fall practice. 

Tennessee head football coach Josh Heupel finally announced what many have been speculating for weeks.

In his final press conference with the local media before Thursday’s season opener, Heupel announced that Joe Milton III will be the Vols’ starting quarterback against Bowling Green.

“I mentioned at the beginning of training camp that we thought we would have a starting quarterback by game week. Joe Milton will be our starting quarterback,” Heupel said.

By the end of fall camp, the QB race had narrowed down to three players: Milton, Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker and sophomore Harrison Bailey. Brian Maurer was another name in the mix for most of the summer, but he entered the transfer portal on Aug. 19 after falling down the depth chart. In the end, it was Milton who pulled ahead.

Milton has been the No. 1 guy in the race for some time now. He took first team reps for most of summer practices, and according to Heupel, has ran the starting offense in practice for the past seven to 10 days.

“I think we came out of the second scrimmage and felt like (Milton) had taken some positive steps in a shorter amount of time, as far as time on task,” Heupel said.

The 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback from Pahokee, Florida is a dual-threat for the Vols. He has a strong arm – one that his teammates raved about throughout camp – and is an accurate passer. Last season in five games for Michigan, Milton passed for 1,077 yards and four touchdowns, completing 56.7% if his passes.

Besides being strong in the air, Milton is also extremely dangerous on the ground. For a quarterback of his size, Milton is very fast, drawing comparisons to former Auburn star and NFL quarterback Cam Newton. Milton ran for 109 yards and a touchdown for the Wolverines in 2020, averaging 2.9 yards per attempt and a long of 23.

The tools are definitely there for Milton, but he will need to be consistent for the Vols to have any success, something he was unable to do across his three years at Michigan.

For Heupel, the decision to start Milton was based on more than just his pure physical abilities, but a combination of his handle of the offense and the progress he made over the summer.

“I don’t think it was just one thing,” Heupel said on the deciding factor between Milton and the rest of the group. “At the end of the day, felt like Joe, his grasp of our offense in the short amount of time, his growth in the middle portion of training camp, his acceleration in what we’re doing, some physical attributes and decision making led us to put the ball in his hands.”

After Milton, Heupel would not commit to one backup between Hooker and Bailey. He said both backups handled the news in a “very positive way”, and he continued to praise their work ethic

“I really do love that group,” Heupel said on the quarterbacks. “And they have continued to grow and push each other and be really positive with each other.”

Heupel would not give a direct answer when asked if he planned to use another quarterback beside Milton in Thursday’s opener. He reiterated the same sentiment he shared earlier in the spring on depth of position groups; “The strength of one position can never be one guy.”

“Every game unfolds in a different situation. I’ve told those guys and I’ve sat here before, and it’s true,” Heupel said. “All these guys would like to start, and I anticipate Joe getting handed the ball first and playing his butt off.”

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