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Tennessee Football: Will Vols regret not having open QB competition as Joe Milton struggles?

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel dismissed concerns about quarterback Joe Milton’s accuracy before the season. Milton was at the time noticeably frustrated by being questioned about what he expected – or hoped – to be a non-issue.

Bad news. The non-issue is still an issue.

As it was when he was Tennessee’s starter in 2021, Milton’s accuracy is a real concern and it was on display in a I-can’t-believe-that-score win over Austin Peay as the Vols survived 30-13.

Milton finished with 21 completions on 33 attempts for 228 yards. The final stat line is nothing to brag about. However, it was worse than that in the first half as Milton completed just one-of-eight passes against the Governors. In his defense, some of the passes were possibly catchable but the throws were often behind Milton’s intended target.

Milton could have probably just completed one pass for the entire game and the Vols would have still beaten Austin Peay given the talent discrepancy between the two teams. In fact, Milton could have just run the ball throughout the game and led the Vols to a win over Austin Peay. However, he’ll need to complete a pass or two to beat Florida in Gainesville on Saturday.

It’s fair to wonder if Heupel should have held an open quarterback competition considering Nico Iamaleava was one of the highest-rated quarterbacks in the nation and one of the Vols’ most highly touted signees in Tennessee football history. Moreover, Iamaleava has been nothing but an ideal player by all accounts since he arrived on campus in December. However, Heupel doesn’t want to hear that sort of talk. 

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Quarterback competition? Nah, that was all figured out. Milton was slated to lead the Vols through the season with accuracy, acclaim and take over where his predecessor, Hendon Hooker, left off, just with more talent. That isn’t happening.

Heupel is already in the middle of September. First-team practice snaps are hard to come by and the time has past to get Iamaleava real game-time repetitions. Heupel announced last week that Iamaleava would not redshirt this season. Considering Milton’s struggles, Iamaleava could go from talk of redshirting to starting before the end of the year.

Milton’s inaccuracies are even more troubling because he missed so many passes that looked to be his bread and butter when the Vols dominated Clemson 31-14 in the Orange Bowl. Milton looked incredibly adept at hitting intermediate passes over the middle against the Tigers as he was able to zip balls into tight spaces with his strong arm. Milton misfired on the very same passes on Saturday.

All of this may not be Milton’s fault. Maybe the weather delay at the beginning of the game threw Tennessee’s offensive chemistry off. Maybe if UT’s receivers caught a few more of those tough grabs, Milton would have settled in and been more accurate. However, there’s no denying that his cold streaks are a liability for Tennessee’s football team. Maybe Heupel should have given Iamaleava more of a chance during the offseason? Or maybe he did and Iamaleava is game ready? We may find out soon.

If Heupel made a mistake by tabbing Milton as the unquestioned starter before the season, it wouldn’t be his first such misstep. Heupel chose Milton to be the starter in 2021 over Hooker, who ended up being a Heisman Trophy candidate. However, Hooker had to wait for Milton to be injured to be awarded the starting job. 

The problem isn’t just that Milton is inaccurate; it’s that his play affects the entire offense. To get Milton back on pace, the Vols clearly dialed up some easy completions to help Milton find a rhythm. Clearly, the Vols have not gotten to this point by being conservative. Just how long can Heupel truly call his game if Milton’s accuracy continues to be an issue in the future? 

As for the present, Milton looks like a shiny sports car that has all of the power one could want, but stays in the shop a bit too much and has trouble handling the curves. There’s no question that a quarterback guru and offensive genius like Heupel views Milton’s talent like a lion views a gimpy gazelle. 

It’s natural for Heupel to be smitten with Milton for his highly publicized ability and the fact that Milton was the first quarterback Heupel deemed worth to be a Vol. Heupel signed Milton. Hooker was signed by former UT coach Jeremy Pruitt. This just in: Iamaleava is talented and was also offered a scholarship by Heupel.

It’s also natural to wonder if Milton is SEC ready. We’ll find out Saturday when the Vols travel to Gainesville to play Florida. If Milton’s accuracy issues continue, then it’s Heupel who missed the mark.

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