Tennessee is set to begin the 2021 football season Thursday night against Bowling Green in Neyland Stadium. It has been a long offseason filled with many questions for the Vols, but days away from opening its 125th season, things are rounding into form.
Most importantly, the Vols have finally named a starting quarterback — Joe Milton III. It took head coach Josh Heupel the entirety of the fall camp to narrow it down between Milton, Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker and sophomore Harrison Bailey. But in the end, Milton won out.
“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.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback from Pahokee, Florida is a dual-threat for the Vols. He has a strong arm and is an accurate passer. Last season, in five games for Michigan, Milton passed for 1,077 yards and four touchdowns, completing 56.7% of his passes.
Milton is also extremely dangerous on the ground. For a quarterback of his size, Milton has speed and can make defenses miss. Milton ran for 109 yards and a touchdown for the Wolverines in 2020, averaging 2.9 yards per attempt and a long of 23.
Tennessee naming Milton its starting quarterback should not make too much of a difference in this game. Milton has taken first-team reps for the past seven to 10 days and is familiar enough with the offense that he should be able to easily exploit Bowling Green’s defense that lacks any playmakers outside of defensive lineman Karl Brooks.
Bowling Green’s offense is not one that should give Tennessee any trouble. The Falcons are led by senior quarterback Matt McDonald, who has been nothing but overwhelming since transferring from Boston College.
In five games last year, McDonald threw for 712 yards and one touchdown to six interceptions. His 44% completion percentage and 5.8 average yards per pass were solid, but even after an offseason of growth with Bowling Green, McDonald is not going to win the Falcons this game.
This matchup gives Tennessee the perfect opportunity to test out its questionable secondary. While some questions have been answered, the Vols have by no means finalized its backfield. Heupel and defensive coordinator Tim Banks have played guys around on the defensive side of the ball to create some versatility. This will be a good time to establish some roles more firmly.
The same thing can be said for Tennessee’s defensive line. This was a group that had plenty of questions of its own, particularly concerning the depth. The guys at the top of the depth chart, Matthew Butler and Aubrey Solomon are established veterans, but the experience quickly stops there.
Omari Thomas, Dominic Bailey and Amari McNeill are former blue chip prospects that have yet to prove themselves. Thursday night could be an excellent time to do that, as Bowling Green’s offensive line is a huge problem outside of preseason All-Mid-American Conference guard Sam Neverov.
“You’ve got to do a great job being gapped out and handling the misdirection, the counter plays,” Heupel said on containing Bowling Green. “You’ve got to be able to fit things extremely well, and then we’ve got to play up the field and create some distortion and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage with our front as well. But, you’ve got to handle the play action pass too.”