It’s time for another school year at Tennessee, which means another season of Tennessee football. After a disappointing showing in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the Vols have a new head coach, an all new staff and a vamped-up roster. On this first day of class, let’s look at the most anticipated and most important roster battle the Vols have — the quarterbacks.
To nobody’s surprise, first year head coach Josh Heupel was not ready to name a starter during his Media Day press conference at the start of fall camp. Heupel and his staff are still in the early stages of whittling down the reps each quarterback gets in practice, but he did anticipate having a starter named by week one.
“Quarterbacks, just like every other position, those competitive battles that they're in, you dwindle the reps down and make decisions when guys have shown that they've earned the opportunity to become a one or become a two or become a three based on how they perform,” Heupel said. “And so, as we go through training camp, the players will dictate how that unfolds.”
Redshirt junior Joe Milton has set himself apart in the early stages of the four-way quarterback race. The transfer from Michigan has the strongest arm among the group and can be a threat with the ball on the ground, even at 6-foot-5 and 244 pounds.
“Really strong arm guy, big body type,” offensive coordinator Alex Golesh said of Milton. “And I mean big, big body; he is big. He is as big of a quarterback as I've ever been around. Really strong arm, has the ability to run. They (Michigan) did not ask him to do that a ton, but can win running the football with him as well. But he has an extremely strong arm.”
Though Milton has had an impressive start to fall camp, it’s no guarantee that he will be the starting quarterback on Sept. 2 against Bowling Green. The Vols have three other capable quarterbacks on their roster — Harrison Bailey, Hendon Hooker and Brian Maurer — each of whom could just as easily top the depth chart.
It’s almost certain that multiple of those guys will see time at quarterback this season. Despite his experience with a two-quarterback system at Oklahoma in 2013, Heupel prefers to settle in on a true starter but did mention the importance of depth at every position — even quarterback.
“I don't think at any position, the strength of the position can just be one guy,” Heupel said. “I know that's unique with a quarterback that there typically is one guy, but I think you’ve got to continually develop that room.”
There is certainly enough time to narrow down the position battle as fall camp rolls on and the first game approaches. These multiple-way position battles tend to sort themselves out, as injuries and performances dictate who gets the most reps.
But, Golesh knows it is imperative to establish some sort of ranking as soon as possible so that the Vols can find their offensive identity — something they lacked all of last season.
“To me, there's a huge sense of urgency,” Golesh said. “You want to start gearing and shaping the offense towards who that guy is and having a plan for who the next one is. Because you obviously have to prepare, you have a plan A and then you (have) to have a plan B, and this time, this COVID thing is still real, so you have to have a plan C. Maybe a plan D even. So, I would like to get a pecking order as fast as we can.”