There are a long list of reasons why Tennessee’s offense could take a step back to the pack this season after having the best offense in the SEC in 2022. However, that doesn’t mean the Vols’ scoring will plummet. It just won’t likely be quite as good as it was last season.
First, the Vols have to replace quarterback Hendon Hooker, which could be a high first-round draft pick according to some NFL analysts. Second, the Vols have to replace Jalin Hyatt, who won the Fred Biletnikoff Award last season as the nation’s best receiver. Then, there’s Darnell Wright, who manhandled the SEC’s best defensive ends and was Tennessee’s best offensive lineman in several years.
That’s a lot. However, it seems as if the Vols will be able to manage. Starting with quarterback, Tennessee will likely be led by Joe Milton III, the senior who lit up Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Following the Vols’ first scrimmage on Saturday, Milton, who is sharing first-team snaps with freshman Nico Iamaleava, seems to be on the right path. Like Hooker was in 2022, Milton is adept at protecting the football, which is a must.
“I thought Joe did a really good job taking care of the football,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “I thought he slid in the pocket a couple of times and continued to get out of it…I thought he had really good command of what’s going on. We got to some situational football at the end—four-minute situation.
“There’s some things we can learn as far as clock management. Nico had a great first drive to go put it in the end zone. I thought he responded to everything well. He’ll learn some things about command and control on the field, but it was a really good day for those guys.”
In a scrimmage that was headlined by the defense, it’s significant that Tennessee’s quarterbacks performed well. It’s also noteworthy that Iamaleava drew some praise. The Vols only have two scholarship quarterbacks on their roster: Milton and Iamaleava. And in case you haven’t heard, Iamaleava enrolled at Tennessee in January with more fanfare than a newly released Taylor Swift album.
“Nico did a lot of really nice things—having his eyes in the right place, being able to make decisive reads, moving the pocket, pushing the football down the field and being accurate in the middle of the field,” Heupel said when asked about the freshman phenom from California. “I thought for his first time being inside (Neyland) Stadium, he did a really nice job with controlling everything that happens when you’re playing within the tempo of how we play. I didn’t think he played outside of himself and never was in a hurry. I saw a lot of positive things.”
Of course, Tennessee’s quarterback play will rely largely on what the Vols’ receivers are able to accomplish. Bru McCoy and Ramel Keyton seem to be proven commodities at wideout. However, Hyatt’s absence in the slot position is a void that won’t be easy to fill. Sophomore Squirrel White would seem to have the inside track considering his experience in the slot last season.
“Squirrel White did a really good job today,” Heupel said. “I thought he did a good job of working the middle of the field, he executed from the whistle to the next snap and did that efficiently.
“Chas Nimrod did a couple of really nice things. Kaleb (Webb) made some nice plays. Nathan Leacock did a couple of nice things on the back half of the scrimmage and thought he settled in too.
“There’s a lot of positives but also a lot of things we have to learn from too.”