There is no silver lining when it comes to Tennessee Vols quarterback Hendon Hooker’s season-ending injury.
Hooker suffered a torn ACL in Tennessee’s 63-38 loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks in Columbia last weekend.
It’s an absolutely brutal end to Hooker’s brilliant career on Rocky Top. And it leaves the Vols without their best player for a road game against a much-improved Vanderbilt team this weekend.
One thing Hooker’s injury provides, however, is a look at backup quarterback Joe Milton in a full-game setting.
Milton has an unreal amount of upside. He has a rocket launcher for an arm and he’s built like a defensive end.
The more I watch this the more ridiculous this throw is from Joe Milton pic.twitter.com/hsvyCc4FPR— zach ragan (@zachTNT) November 14, 2022
His consistency — specifically with his accuracy — is the main concern.
We saw an example of this in the South Carolina game when Milton came in to replace Hooker.
This is the one concern with Joe Milton. He quickly makes the right decision, but you can’t miss that throw. Gotta hit those. pic.twitter.com/BiMju8yVLg— zach ragan (@zachTNT) November 24, 2022
Those are throws you can’t miss in SEC games.
Now, to be fair to Milton, he wasn’t expecting to come into the game, he hasn’t seen a lot of meaningful game reps this season, and he wasn’t in any sort of rhythm at that point in the game. So I don’t think it’s fair to assume that he still has accuracy issues based on one missed throw.
But based on his past at Michigan and the two games he started for the Vols last season (plus the action he saw in the Ole Miss game last season), it’s reasonable to be concerned about whether or not Milton’s accuracy — especially on intermediate throws — has improved enough to be a starting SEC quarterback.
The game against Vanderbilt on Saturday and Tennessee’s bowl game will give Vols head coach Josh Heupel and his staff a good look at Milton as they start thinking about the 2023 season and who will be under center.
Milton is the frontrunner for the job for now, but he won’t just be anointed the starter next spring. He’ll have to win the job. True freshman Tayven Jackson and incoming five-star recruit Nico Iamaleava will compete with Milton.
And there’s a possibility that Heupel will pursue a quarterback in the transfer portal.
If Milton struggles against Vanderbilt, I think the possibility of Tennessee looking for a quarterback in the portal rises significantly.
I think Heupel should look for a transfer quarterback regardless. The more guys in the room, the better the odds you find an elite player that can run Heupel’s offense. I’m not saying Milton isn’t the guy — if he figures it out, he can be one of the most dangerous players in college football. But that’s something that’s been said about Milton since he was at Michigan.
If Heupel decides to take a transfer quarterback, it will be reminiscent of the situation at LSU before the 2022 season.
Brian Kelly arrived in Baton Rouge with three viable quarterback options — Myles Brennan (who put up insane numbers in 2020 before his injury), Garrett Nussmeier, and five-star true freshman Walker Howard.
Despite having those players on the roster, Kelly still brought Jayden Daniels (previously at Arizona State) to LSU. That ended up being the right decision by Kelly as Daniels won the job in camp and has led the Tigers to a No. 5 ranking in the College Football Playoff rankings.
I don’t know what Heupel’s plan is when it comes to the quarterback position at Tennessee in 2023. And maybe he doesn’t have a plan yet. But if Milton struggles against Vanderbilt, I wouldn’t be surprised if a plan starts to form that’s centered on searching for a quarterback in the portal.
And based on what we saw in Baton Rouge this season, that could prove to be the right decision.
Featured image via Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports