The Vols vs. Kentucky
Brian Maurer, #18, hands the ball off to running back Ty Chandler, #8, who throws a screen pass at Kroger Field while facing the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday, November 9, 2019.
 

There won’t be a single aspect of Josh Heupel’s first year at Tennessee under a microscope more than his quarterback room. The biggest selling point of Heupel’s hire was his ability to develop quarterbacks, an area that Tennessee football has been sorely lacking for years.

With spring practices over and the summer session about to begin, here is a look at Heupel’s crowded quarterback room to see where things stand.

Brian Maurer

After a promising freshman campaign in 2019, Maurer took a big step backwards in 2020 as he fell down the depth chart. He played in just four games in 2020 and completed 2-of-6 passes for nine yards and no touchdowns. Maurer was slightly more successful on the ground where he recorded 41 rushing yards of five carries.

Maurer has been with Tennessee the longest of anyone on this list, so there is plenty of familiarity there with the team. His strong arm fits much better in Heupel’s offense than it did with Jim Cheney’s last year. For what it’s worth, Maurer was the first quarterback out in the 2021 Orange & White Game, where he threw for 171 yards and a touchdown.

Harrison Bailey

Bailey shared the majority of snaps in 2020 after Jarrett Guarantano was benched. As a true freshman, Bailey threw for 578 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions while completing 70% of his passes. The former five-star recruit showed flashes of potential in limited action. He was an accurate passer, but had a poor pocket presence. Bailey often struggled to move the ball downfield as a result of him holding the ball too long.

This should be less of an issue for Bailey in Heupel’s fast-tempo offense, and the results seemed to have paid off early. He threw for 260 yards and two touchdowns in the Orange & White Game, including a 73-yard touchdown pass to Jack Jancek.

Hendon Hooker

Hooker is the most experienced quarterback of this group, as he started the last two seasons at Virginia Tech. Last year, Hooker led the Hokies to a 5-6 record while throwing for 1,339 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions. Hooker is an elite dual-threat option, and he’s totaled 247 carries for 1,033 yards and 15 touchdowns in his career.

His speed and athleticism should work tremendously in Heupel’s tempo-based offense. In the Orange & White Game, Hooker was 10-of-14 for 111 yards and a touchdown in the air, while he ran for 13 yards and a touchdown. He did, however, have the game’s lone interception.

Joe Milton

Milton is coming off a mixed junior campaign at Michigan. He started four of six games for the Wolverines, throwing for 1,077 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions. Against rival Michigan State, Milton totaled 300 passing and 59 rushing yards, but he was benched after a miserable nine-of-19, 98 yard and two interception performance against Wisconsin.

Milton might be the biggest wild card in this race, as he committed to transfer to UT on April 19, right in the middle of spring practices. As such, Milton did not get to spend the spring with the team, but he is making up for the lost time, already living in Knoxville over the summer. The graduate transfer will be immediately eligible, and he has some familiarity with Heupel, as he was offered by Missouri while Heupel was serving there as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

The rest

Tennessee has three other quarterbacks on its roster -- Kaidon Salter, Sully McDermott and Spencer Smith -- though these three are all extremely unlikely to win the job.

Salter, a four-star prospect from the Class of 2021, has the biggest ceiling of anyone in this group. He is an athletic, dual-threat quarterback with excellent speed and a live arm. Salter, however, was suspended before the first spring practice, as he was among four Tennessee players charged with simple possession and unlawful drug paraphernalia in relation to an incident that occurred on March 9. If he even stays with the program, the talented prospect will fall to the bottom of the scholarship quarterbacks.

Smith, a redshirt sophomore and walk-on, was the final quarterback to see action in the Orange & White Game, and he completed all three of his pass attempts for 31 yards.

Prediction

Even as recently as the Orange & White Game, Heupel said this quarterback race was still “wide open.” He is in the process of implementing his full playbook, so Heupel wouldn’t commit to one guy so early on, and probably won’t until well into the fall.

If I had to pick though, I think Hooker will get the starting nod under center. His dual-threat ability pairs nicely with Heupel’s fast-paced offense, and his previous starting experience gives him an advantage over the rest of the somewhat inexperienced group. 

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