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Tennessee Football: Quarterback Seems Set for the Vols

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Tennessee’s quarterback plan for the 2023 season seems to be falling into place.

Let’s face it, before the Vols hit the practice field for preseason camp – or even spring practice – there were plenty that would rather see five-star signee Nico Iamaleava hit the field before senior Joe Milton III. Why? Milton has had his struggles. The most notable one was when he jumped out of bounds against Ole Miss in 2020 with no time remaining on the clock, which led to a disappointing loss for the Vols in Neyland Stadium. However, Milton being the best option this season was always the best outcome for the Vols. 

Milton has always been treated like the unquestionable starter since former record-setting UT quarterback Hendon Hooker went off to the NFL. Sure, some fans would love to see what Iamaleava could do, but that wouldn’t have been best for Tennessee’s football program. Ideally, Milton – with all the talent one could imagine – would settle into the starting role and allow Iamaleava to grow into a superstar role, especially since he’s about as big as a toothpick on a diet.

Mechanics were a major emphasis for Milton during the offseason, particularly his footwork. Since camp began, the Vols have tried to put him in difficult situations to see how he can handle scenarios that could cost the Vols points.

“He’s continued to grow in his understanding of Football 101, understanding ‘When can I hang in the pocket? When is the time to get rid of the football and make sure that, in a certain situation, whether we’re backed up or in field goal (range), where you got three and you’re trying to get seven,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “Understanding the timing in how to play smart football in those situations. He’s continued to grow, and I love what he’s done.”

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So maybe those with strong memories can start to forget about that Rebel-rousing mistake against Ole Miss. Instead, perhaps the true Milton was on display when he torched Clemson in the Orange Bowl. While so many teams in college football are seemingly always looking for a competent starting quarterback, Tennessee is fortunate. They appeared to have two last year heading into the season. During preseason camp, the Vols are seemingly in the same shape this year.

“Joe was such a great leader for us a year ago, long before anybody saw him step onto the field,” Heupel said. “His growth, how intentional he was in his work was a big part of why everybody believed he would play at a really high level when he got his next chance. 

“For Nico, this year, right now in the backend of training camp, getting prepared for week one and throughout the course of the season. As it’s true for every guy that’s not the first guy out there, it’s about continued growth and putting yourself in the position to play at your highest level when you get your opportunity. Nico has operated that way. He’s been intentional in the way that he’s worked. Joe being able to see things and communicate to Nico, never it being personal. It’s a really positive relationship that exists between those two, but all the guys inside that quarterback room. It’s a really unique dynamic.” 

In this day and age of the transfer portal, it’s unusual to have two quarterbacks able to play at a high level in two consecutive seasons. It was Hooker and Milton last year. Now, Milton has secured the starting role while Iamaleava is set to be the backup – and the future. However, if something were to happen to Milton, the short-term future would look bright.

“I think he’s ready to play at a really high level,” Heupel said. “All the young quarterbacks, it’s different when you get out there. It’s live bullets and you don’t have a red (non-contact) jersey on. Feel really good about where he’s at. Command of our offense, being a really sound decision maker, fundamentally being able to get himself in a good position to be consistently accurate with the ball. I like what he’s done.” 

Iamaleava’s ability hasn’t just been on display on the practice field. He’s showed up in meeting rooms as well.
“As a young man coming into a program understanding the standards that we have here, the demands of playing quarterback at this level,” Heupel said when asked about some of Iamaleava’s strengths. “Being able to start to grasp and understand what’s going on from us up-front. Protections, defensive structure, being able to see and recognize, anticipate and see post-snap rotations from the backend. 

“At the end of the day, controlling his job and having his eyes in the right spot. He’s a dramatically different player than he was in spring ball, love the steps that he took in the spring too. This football team has a lot of trust in him.” 

Based on the last two seasons and his coaching history, the football community should have plenty of trust that Heupel can control the various moving parts of having two capable quarterbacks on the roster.

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