It’s easy to get the feeling that Tennessee coach Josh Heupel has grown tired of the countless questions about his starting quarterback. It’s hard to blame him.
That has been the topic of discussion among media and fans since the Vols finished last season. Is Milton the accurate quarterback that he was in the Orange Bowl or is he the quarterback who has struggled with accuracy at times during his career?
“He was really accurate with the football, really decisive, been a really good decision maker,” Heupel said of Milton following the Vols’ scrimmage on Wednesday. “I do not know if he has thrown a pick all training camp.”
Okay, let’s be honest for a second. Heupel knows whether or not Milton has thrown an interception. However, Heupel is understandably backing his man. Frankly, I don’t blame him.
Knock Milton all you want, but it’s really difficult to judge just how accurate he is unless you’re wearing a headset during games. Tennessee’s offense is based on pre and post-snap reads in which the Vols’ quarterback and receiver have to be in synch. If not, things can look pretty bad because Heupel asks his quarterbacks to throw the ball before the receiver makes his break. What looks like a wildly errant throw can actually be just a bad read by UT’s quarterback or a Vols receiver.
In the case of the latter, that’s not the quarterback’s fault at all. How often has that happened to Milton? No one truly knows, but it would be absurd to think it didn’t happen frequently when Milton was branded as an erratic passer as Tennessee’s offense was being assembled in 2021. There were likely all kinds of things going on in Heupel’s first season as UT’s head coach.
According to Tennessee’s sports information department, the Vols got off to a fast start on offense in Wednesday’s scrimmage. However, that can’t actually be confirmed since practices are closed. Confirmation or not, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vols played well on Wednesday for a few reasons.
First, Tennessee’s defense “won” the Vols’ first scrimmage last week, which is usually the case in preseason camp. Second, the Vols have had a week to get used to life without center Cooper Mays, who is currently sidelined with an undisclosed injury until at least next week. Lastly, Heupel controls practice. It wouldn’t be wise to throw Milton to the wolves by putting him in difficult positions. As confident as Milton has been during the offseason, he could probably still use an extra boost in the belief department. Anyone would doubt themselves after losing their job, which Milton did in 2021, to Hendon Hooker, who is currently a Detroit Lion.
Speaking of Hooker, his accuracy was questioned before he became one of the most accurate passers in Tennessee football history last season. When I asked about Milton’s accuracy at SEC Media Days in July, Hooker said his issues didn’t have anything to do with ball placement; it was all about reading defenses in tune with his receivers. There’s no reason to think that Hooker was lying.
Coaches always want a few more practices before they begin the season. Heupel may be the exception this year. Once again, Heupel will be asked about his quarterback’s accuracy repeatedly, just like he was when Hooker was set to start the 2022 season. I wouldn’t blame Heupel for taking such talk personally. After all, he’s supposed to be a quarterback and offensive guru, yet he’s continually queried about his quarterbacks. That must be frustrating.
Heupel, however, must carry some of the blame for that. It sure seemed like Hooker was more ready to play than Milton in 2021, yet Milton was named the starter in preseason, but, as previously stated, what was UT’s offense expected to be early in that season when it was completely overhauled? Hooker may have struggled early in the season just like Milton.
Heupel had better be ready for more accuracy questions. Milton won’t get a chance to prove much against Virginia and Austin Peay, who the Vols should both beat in Nashville and at home, respectively. Milton won’t be really tested until the Vols play Florida on Sept. 23. Then, maybe the repetitive questions will stop. Heupel certainly hopes so.