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Tennessee Football: Is Vols coach Josh Heupel a Joe Milton III believer?

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Judging by my Twitter feed and just about anyone I talk to that follows Tennessee football, one thing is clear. Tennessee fans want an upgrade at quarterback very, very soon, and they’re not banking on any freshman for the short-term.

Nico Iamaleava is rated as high as any quarterback Tennessee has ever recruited and he may well lead Tennessee to a national championship one day. However, Tennessee fans are in the here and now. Winning can’t wait on Iamaleava to earn his college stripes. With the transfer portal opening on Wednesday, now means now. It’s funny how a taste of success can change a fanbase’s perspective. However, pressing for immediate results may not be in Tennessee coach Josh Heupel’s grand scheme of rebuilding the Vols. His plan may be akin to an SEC East brethren.

Take a look at Georgia. They’re doing okay with last year’s leftovers. The Bulldogs are playing for a national championship with Stetson Bennett at quarterback instead of Caleb Williams, who decided against transferring to Georgia and enrolling at Southern California. Now, let’s be clear. The Williams-Lincoln Riley package seemed like a done deal as soon as Riley bolted Oklahoma for Los Angeles. However, Georgia made a strong run at Williams and was ready to replace Bennett. Then, the strangest thing happened.

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Bennett upped his game a notch and just kept winning. With quarterback Hendon Hooker moving onto the NFL, the Vols don’t have that option, but they do have the option to stand pat.

Dave Hooker, Amanda LaFratta and Caleb Calhoun on Off The Hook Sports with Dave Hooker

As college football continues to evolve into a business, let’s not forget that there is only so much money for Tennessee to throw at prospects before the well runs dry. Moreover, I feel certain that Tennessee’s athletic department is well aware of what they can spend. Do they really want to blow the entire salary cap on one position? They’ve reportedly already invested a ton in Nico Iamaleava.

Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi said recently that he’s aware of two schools that have offered North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye $5 million to transfer. If the Vols got Iamaleava for $8-million for an entire college career, as widely reported, then the Vols got the deal of the century. 

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So how did Georgia manage without an upgrade at quarterback this season? Simple. Its roster was better than every other college football team in the nation. They proved that this season, and Bennett proved he was more than average; he was a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Does that mean Milton can do the same? Not necessarily. First, Tennessee football has to have a much better roster to compete for a national title in 2023 or any year down the road. There were countless pieces that fell into place for the 2022 season to happen. There are going to be years in which things don’t always fall into place. It would be foolish to take an elite quarterback over an elite roster.

It’s also worth noting that Heupel’s track record is one that is chock full of player improvement. How many three-star prospects have turned into prime-time players in Heupel’s two years at Tennessee. Did anyone see Hendon Hooker, Jalin Hyatt or Byron Young coming? There’s proof in the argument that Milton could follow in their footsteps, improve and be a standout player for the Vols in 2023. In fact, it seems like some are selling Heupel short. He is supposed to be an offensive guru, right?

I know it’s hard to reconcile a flailing pass by Milton and the thought of Tennessee football not needing a quarterback right now as two simultaneous possibilities, but that could be exactly what Heupel is thinking: build the roster. After all, Tennessee has its quarterback supposedly in place with Iamaleava. Instead of spending resources recruiting a quarterback, maybe Heupel wants to continue to build the entire roster and hope the quarterback thing works itself out as it is designed to.

Would Tennessee be better off with a proven quarterback on its roster via the transfer portal? Yes. Is it an absolute necessity? No. In fact, it’s almost a luxury. The vast majority of the schools in the nation would gladly trade quarterback rooms with the Vols. 

Also, if Tennessee football doesn’t pick up a quarterback in the transfer portal, could it have been premeditated within the Iamaleava deal? I’m not suggesting that Iamaleava would demand to be the only quarterback in this class. However, it would make sense if he were. It would also make sense to get Iamaleava as many practice snaps as possible. There’s a gamble in that, but there’s also a gamble in taking another quarterback when Milton is a team favorite. Don’t underestimate team chemistry.

Moreover, don’t underestimate just how much a player can improve in an offseason. That’s why there just might be a Hooker Street in Knoxville someday. Well, that just sounds weird.

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