Every season, positional depth ebbs and flows in the locker rooms of major college football programs. Tennessee’s quarterback room did not just ebb this offseason, it made waves.
Jarrett Guarantano and JT Shrout entered the transfer portal in December, Kaidon Salter was dismissed from the team in June and Brian Maurer followed them into the portal in August. The four departures left Harrison Bailey, Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker and Michigan transfer Joe Milton to compete for the starting job.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Milton won the job in the preseason, but Milton put a volatile performance on tape in Tennessee’s 38-6 season-opening win over Bowling Green. He completed 11 of 23 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown on Thursday night in Neyland.
“The pass game was really hit-and-miss from us tonight,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “Some of that was quarterback decision making and being accurate with the football. Some of it was wide receivers being on the same page, a couple opportunities to catch it and we don’t. We’re gonna have to be a whole lot more efficient in the pass game than we were tonight.”
Milton started the night with nine completions on his first ten throws, but he connected with receivers on just two of his remaining thirteen tosses. Balls floated into receivers’ hands off of Milton’s fluid delivery on the run, but he failed to hit open receivers numerous times while scrambling. However, those same receivers dropped multiple balls, plaguing Milton’s box score as the night drew on.
“I thought there were some positives,” Heupel said. “Quarterback and wide receivers didn’t perform the way that we’re capable of and the way that we’re going to need to moving forward. There were some positives early. We can be a whole lot better as the night went on, and we’re gonna be.”
Milton showed off a strong arm, but he overthrew two open receivers on deep tosses down the field. Heupel said the speed of Milton’s throws was unconnected to the receivers’ drop problems.
“Protection breaks down, (Milton is) scrambling around, doesn’t have his eyes in the right spot, misses somebody running down the middle of the field. Then you don’t throw and catch it. I mean, everybody played a part in it,” Heupel said. “There wasn’t anything short that got dropped. It’s all of us executing at a higher level than we are.”
Tennessee’s rushing attack carried the Vols to a dominant victory over Bowling Green, which lost all five of its games last season, the closest of which was a 42-17 loss to Buffalo. Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans each racked up 116 rushing yards and a touchdown, and Milton added 44 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
However, Milton killed some drives by opting to run for short gains on third downs while he had open receivers running open beyond the first down marker. Linebacker Daren Anders tracked him down during a scramble in the second half, forcing a Milton fumble that was recovered by Bowling Green.
“Up until the fumble, I thought he did a good job of taking care of the football,” Heupel said. “There were opportunities where he could use his feet. There’s a couple times that, in using his feet, there’s things that are open down the middle of the football field that he dosen’t have to get out of. I think early in the football game he operated efficiently with what we were doing.”
Milton said he played well in his first game in orange, but there were a lot of things to clean up on offense.
“I feel like I ran it better than I did (at Michigan). I felt more confident in my runs,” he said. “When you’ve got a guy like me that can do it all, it’s all about the execution part of it.”
Milton fixed a lot in his game since transferring from Michigan and said that it was an honor to win the starting quarterback job for a storied Tennessee team. Heupel indicated that Milton will retain that honor for next week’s game against Pittsburgh.
“There wasn’t anything that was earth-shattering that you felt like you had to make a change,” Heupel said. “We believe in Joe. We believe in (Bailey and Hooker) too, and we really do. The strength of a position can never be one guy. They’re all gonna have to continue to compete and get better, but Joe’s going to have to continue to get better too.”
Edited by Ryan Sylvia
Featured Image by Christian Knox