There weren’t a lot of justifiable reasons to criticize Tennessee Vols head coach Josh Heupel last season.

Tennessee exceeded expectations by going 7-6 in Heupel’s first year as the program’s head coach. That 7-6 season came after Jeremy Pruitt went 3-7 the season before and managed to get the program wrapped up in an NCAA recruiting investigation.

The one thing that critics pointed to was Heupel’s decision to start Joe Milton over Hendon Hooker at quarterback for the first two games of the season. That decision possibly cost the Vols a win against Pittsburgh last year.

While it’s easy to say in retrospect that Heupel should’ve gone with Hooker from the beginning, it’s understandable why Milton was the guy coming out of camp.

And a comment from Hooker earlier this offseason explains why.

Vols
Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker (5) hands off the ball to running back Marcus Pierce Jr. (30) in the final minutes of the NCAA college football game between the Tennessee Volunteers and Bowling Green Falcons in Knoxville, Tenn. on Thursday, September 2, 2021.
Ut Bowling Green

When Hooker first arrived at Tennessee, the offensive tempo was a bit much for him. He struggled with it before eventually finding his way. Even when he saw action against Bowling Green, he was still playing too tight. He wasn’t relaxed and comfortable. Essentially, he wasn’t the same Hooker we saw later in the season.

“The first two or three months in the offense was difficult,” explained Hooker during an appearance earlier this year on The Slice podcast. “Just trying to move so fast and think at the same time was tough. But the more repetition and the more work you put in, just like anything, you’ll get better at it.”

“My first game, I was thinking so much,” explained Hooker. “I was like ‘wow’…just trying to be decisive about my decision making was definitely something I had to have a come to Jesus moment. I had to sit back and kind of enjoy everything that was going on. I remember I would come off the field and my face would be scrunched up and I’d be like ‘man, I’ve got to lock in’ and they’d be like ‘no, relax, smile and have fun’. So that’s definitely helped me out.”

It sounds like Hooker wasn’t very quick with his decision-making during camp. And in Heupel’s offense, a quarterback has to be extremely quick when it comes to making decisions on the field. Milton was seemingly more comfortable during camp running the up-tempo offense, which is why Hooker didn’t start the first two games of the 2021 season.

Once Milton prove to be ineffective (and suffered an injury against Pittsburgh), Hooker got his shot. And it all clicked for him.

We live in an instant gratification society. Everyone wants results immediately. Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s kind of like when a kid learns to walk. Whether or not they walked at 10 months or 14 months isn’t going to determine how far they go in life. Hooker not grasping the offense as quickly as Milton didn’t spell the end of his career. He kept working and now he’s a legitimate threat to win the Heisman Trophy. If Heupel would’ve given up on Hooker after one summer, the Vols would likely still be wandering in the wilderness.

Heupel knows quarterbacks as well as anyone in the country. If he would’ve tossed Hooker out there before he was ready, he could’ve ruined his career. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter that Tennessee lost to Pittsburgh last season. A win in that game doesn’t change anything about the Vols’ outlook under Heupel.

There’s no reason to criticize Heupel for making a move that it sounds like even Hooker knew was the right move at the time.

Featured image via Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports