Tennessee football: How a QB change became the turning point of Vols’ 2021 season

They say this sport is about the next man up. Sometimes, the next man up becomes the star. That happened with the New England Patriots when Tom Brady stepped in for Drew Bledsoe in 2001, and it happened with Tennessee football this past year.

When you look at the way the Vols’ season went, despite their Music City Bowl loss, they shocked the world by going 7-5 in the regular season. Josh Heupel’s first year was supposed to involve UT just barely getting to 6-6. So what changed? The turning point was an injury in their first loss.

Trailing the Pittsburgh Panthers 17-13 at home, the Vols lost their starting quarterback Joe Milton III to injury. At the time, nobody knew what would happen with Tennessee football going forward. There was plenty of reason for concern.

Milton had struggled through a game and a half, completing just 18-of-35 passes for 189 yards (5.28 yards per attempt) and a touchdown while carrying it 19 times for 98 yards and two touchdowns. He had no interceptions but did have two fumbles and missed tons of easy touchdown passes on overthrows.

If Milton could struggle like that for a half against Pitt and in a 38-6 win against a bad Bowling Green Falcons team, you have to wonder how bad Hendon Hooker or Harrison Bailey would be, as they were the two other quarterbacks on the roster, and he beat them both out. Milton, a Michigan Wolverines transfer, was the one quarterback Heupel signed.

Well, Heupel went with Hooker, the Virginia Tech Hokies graduate transfer. Against Pitt, Hooker completed 15-of-21 passes for 188 yards (8.95 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns while rushing for 49 yards on nine carries. He did fail to convert a late fourth down and threw an interception on UT’s final drive, costing them the game, but the talent was there.

On the heels of that 41-34 loss, Hooker got the nod the next week against the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles with Milton still banged up. He started in a loss to the Florida Gators but got hurt himself, so Milton came in.

With a quarterback controversy seemingly in full effect, Heupel made the decision of the year the next week. Both quarterbacks were fully healthy, and he decided to go with Hooker full-time. The decision paid off.

At 3-2, Tennessee football dominated the Missouri Tigers 62-24 on the road. They beat the South Carolina Gamecocks 45-20 the next week and unleashed an offensive onslaught all year that was expected when Heupel was hired.

Hooker was at the center of it all. He finished the year completing 206 of 302 passes (68.2 percent) for 2,945 yards (9.8 yards per attempt), 31 touchdowns and just three interceptions while gaining weight 620 yards on 167 carries (3.7 yards per attempt) and scoring five rushing touchdowns. It was clear he was the best quarterback.

Before the start of the season, a five-quarterback competition was expected. However, Kaidon Salter was dismissed in the summer, and Brian Maurer transferred in fall camp. Bailey decided to transfer in the middle of the season.

That brought it down to Hooker and Milton, and while Milton started the beginning of the season, Hooker took the job in the second game and never looked back. He made stars out of Cedric Tillman, Velus Jones Jr. and even JaVonta Payton and ran the offense to near perfection. With he and Tillman returning next year, the future looks bright.

Although he missed on who to start the season with, Heupel deserves credit for his willingness to change quarterbacks based on performance. It was the move of the year, and if he didn’t do it, UT would have definitely lost to the Kentucky Wildcats, the only top 25 team they beat, and they may not have beaten the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Everything that people enjoyed about Heupel’s pleasantly surprising first year as Tennessee footballs’ head coach was due to that quarterback change. It’s also the reason people are excited about next year too. The change from Hooker to Milton was the key moment of the 2021 season.