Tennessee football: Joe Milton starting. Did other QBs have a chance?

Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III (7) during morning football practice on campus on Friday, August 20, 2021.Kns Ut Football Practice Bp
Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III (7) during morning football practice on campus on Friday, August 20, 2021.Kns Ut Football Practice Bp /

The largest question surrounding Tennessee football entering the 2021 season has been put to rest, at least for now. In his Week One Monday press conference, head coach Josh Heupel named Michigan Wolverines transfer Joe Milton III as his starting quarterback.

Sorry, but you immediately have to question if this was ever a fair competition. Milton, who stands at 6’5″ 244 pounds, is the one quarterback on the roster Heupel signed. Heupel actually recruited him heavily when he was offensive coordinator of the Missouri Tigers.

Clearly Heupel liked Milton, and you have to wonder if that led to favorable treatment. After all, Milton was 2-3 as a starter at Michigan and had only four touchdowns with four interceptions. He didn’t even take part in Tennessee football’s spring practices.

Harrison Bailey was easily the top performer in the spring. Virginia Tech Hokies graduate transfer Hendon Hooker, a dual-threat, is the most proven player at the position given what he has done in recent years when healthy. Somehow, though, Heupel went with Milton.

Maybe Milton is the best of the bunch. He was a four-star quarterback in 2018 for a reason, and he has a big arm. It’s possible he was the best guy to run Heupel’s offense until four-star dual-threat Tayven Jackson arrived on campus next year.

However, the events that led up to Milton winning the job are highly suspicious, and they go beyond just the performances and practices. Remember, back during SEC Media Days, before Milton ever took a snap of practice with the Vols, Heupel was favoring Milton above all other quarterbacks. We wrote about his comments here.

There’s also the fact that Kaidon Salter, another four-star dual-threat quarterback who was in the 2021 class, was dismissed. Now, it’s true Salter missed all of spring ball due to an off-field issue and then got caught in another situation during the summer.

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Both were extremely minor offenses, though, and Heupel’s dismissal of Salter just seemed like a way to clear up the race. We wrote about that and the statement Heupel was trying to make as Tennessee football’s head coach here.

Then there’s Brian Maurer. Look, Maurer wasn’t likely to ever win the job, even if Milton wasn’t on the roster. However, he entered the transfer portal over 10 days ago, when there was still plenty of time to win the job, and he had been absent from practice for a week before that.

It’s likely Maurer hit the portal because he wasn’t going to win the job, but how did he know so early? That’s a question that has to be raised going forward. Maurer does have experience, is another dual-threat and has zip on his throws. You’d think it would take more than so few practices before it was clear he wouldn’t be the guy.

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Taking all of these things into account, it seems like Tennessee football’s starting quarterback was determined the second Milton confirmed his transfer to the Vols back in April. Heupel is entitled to his guy, to be fair, but this “quarterback race” appears to have been a mirage from the start.