KNOXVILLE—Josh Heupel is adamant that he is confident in his three-man quarterback room, but only one will take the first snap in Tennessee’s season opener Thursday night at Neyland Stadium.
The first year head coach announced Monday that Michigan transfer Joe Milton will start for Tennessee against Bowling Green.
It confirmed what had been speculated since the first week of fall camp, that the 6-foot-5, 244-pound Milton, who started five games for the Wolverines, was the leader of the pack that includes Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker and returning freshman Harrison Bailey.
“I mentioned at the beginning of training camp that we would have a starting quarterback by game week,” Heupel said. “Joe Milton will be our starting quarterback. I talked to (Milton, Hooker and Bailey) about that earlier. I’m not naming a backup.
“I believe in what those guys are ready to do, given the opportunity. They’ll continue to grow and compete, all three of them. ... I believe in those other two guys as well.”
Hooker entered fall camp with the most experience, starting in 15 games at Virginia Tech before transferring to Tennessee in the spring, while Bailey, a former five-star recruit in the 2020 signing class, started three games for the Vols in his freshman season, throwing for 578 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions in that span.
The group featured a fourth player in junior Brian Maurer, who played in 12 games for Tennessee between 2019 and 2020, but he entered the transfer portal two weeks ago.
“I don’t think there is just one thing (that separated Milton from Hooker and Bailey),” Heupel said. “First of all, I truly mean this and I think coaches sometimes get up and just say it, but I really do love that group. They’ve continued to grow and push each other. They’re really positive with each other. Our team and our offensive group sees and feels that energy.
“All three of them have a positive effect on the offensive group and the team as a whole. They’ve handled that throughout this entire process, which is really difficult to do. I really believe that all three of them have the ability to go play at a really high level given the opportunity.”
Milton, a four-star pro-style quarterback out of Orlando, Florida was 2-3 as Michigan’s starting quarterback in 2020. He threw for 225 yards and a touchdown in the Wolverines 49-24 season opening win over Minnesota, but struggled down the stretch in a COVID-shortened season, finishing with 1,077 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions before transferring to Tennessee over the summer.
“At the end of the day, I felt like Joe, just his grasp of our offense in a short amount of time and the growth in the middle portion of training camp, his acceleration in what we’re doing, some physical attributes, decision making led us to put the ball in his hands,” Heupel said.
As for Hooker and Bailey, Heupel was mum on if the two quarterbacks would be featured against the Falcons, but didn’t rule out the possibility as he addressed the question the same way he did earlier in fall camp about a possible two-quarterback system.
“Every game unfolds in a different situation,” Heupel said. “I told those guys and I’ve said it here before, it’s true and plays out this way, the strength of one position can never be one guy. All of them have got to prepare like the starter. I anticipate Joe getting handed the ball first and playing his butt off in a really good way.”