Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, Joe Milton have cooked up a college football anomaly

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The quarterback room is one of football’s most-discussed places, and the quarterback room with the starter and backup who “truly support each other” and “don’t really look at it like a competition” is boring and oversold.

The quarterback room with a starter and backup who are actually close enough in ability and program tenure to be competitors is becoming a college football relic It’s hard to put together a proper one anymore.

“It’s almost impossible,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel told The Athleticbut he has one, and that might be one of the most exciting and undersold aspects of his program entering Year 2 — with an eye on Year 3.

Let’s start there. Hendon Hooker will be gone in 2023, after a two-year run at starting quarterback that could statistically rival any in the history of Tennessee football. The guy who initially beat him out for the job, the guy who has become his best friend, will be left to compete with the most celebrated UT quarterback recruit since Peyton Manning — five-star California product Nico Iamaleava — and presumably with Tayven Jackson entering his second season.

And this is where the internal and external views of Joe Milton depart sharply from each other.


The staff believes it has two top-flight QBs in Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton. (Tennessee Athletics)

Outside the program, he’s the guy who airmailed a month’s worth of deep shots in one loss to Pitt, the guy who didn’t even throw the ball on the last play after relieving an injured Hooker late against Ole Miss, the guy whose failings at Michigan translated to his brief tenure as a starter at Tennessee. A good guy to have back in the program, sure, because Hooker runs the ball with abandon and you just never know. But not a guy who’s going to be a serious threat again to take the controls of Heupel’s warp-speed offense.

Inside the program?

“A leader on this team,” receiver Cedric Tillman said.

“He’s locked in and his time is coming,” safety Trevon Flowers said.

“He knows his time is coming,” running back Jabari Small said, and that time would have to be next season, and Hooker has a vision of it.

“Like, Joe can really be the best college football player in the nation,” Hooker said.

Outside the program: A mistake of 2021. Inside the program: A Heisman in 2023.

“I think where Joe had to take a long, hard look in the mirror after last season was saying, ‘Man, I can walk away again and chase another opportunity, or I can put my head down and go to work,'” Tennessee offensive coordinator Alex Golesh told The Athletic. “Joe’s incredibly smart, incredibly talented. Supremely talented. Like, as talented a quarterback as I’ve ever seen. It didn’t go his way at the beginning of the last season. So you try to find a solution to it, and trust me, we have. And a lot of it comes down to mental toughness and confidence in your ability.”

Milton appears to have plenty of both to go with a 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame and an arm that, if Monday’s initial preseason practice is any indication, has been trained extensively to find touch and loft. He will be a 23-year-old in his third season in this offense a year from now, and all of these things should be remembered by those who expect a true freshman to come in and assume instant control.

For now, Milton is simply a better backup plan than most teams have. Watching Hooker and Milton (along with Jackson and transfer newcomers Navy Shuler and Gaston Moore) trade off reps makes it easier to understand how Milton won the job a year ago. The ball explodes out of his hand and is consistently on time, on target. He’s a mountain that moves. The 6-4, 218-pound hooker simply can’t do some of the things Milton can do.

What Hooker can do is harness and put to full use his talents on game day. That’s why this isn’t a competition. That’s why Heisman talk could find Hooker this fall, if the Vols can sweep their swing games and approach 10 wins.

That’s how Hooker threw for 2,945 yards with 31 touchdowns and three interceptions for a 7-6 team in Heupel’s debut season, setting program records for passer efficiency rating (181.4) and completion percentage (68.0). He rushed for 616 yards and five touchdowns, too, and he was playing through some level of pain the rest of the way after a leg injury knocked him out of that Oct. 16 loss to Ole Miss. He didn’t start until the third week, after relieving Milton in the loss to Pittsburgh in the second week.

Milton tore ankle ligaments on a long run that day. Afterward, Hooker was the one who spent time with him. They got dinner together after leaving Neyland Stadium. A friendly, competitive relationship became something more that day. Even as they traded places on the depth chart.

“It’s a unique relationship,” Heupel said. “And it’s been really good for our football team to see somebody at that position that wants to continue to grow and is willing to work through that process, to stay the course.”

Tennessee doesn’t just have a good quarterback room this season, it has a quarterback apartment. Hooker and Milton recently moved in together, which also meant a pairing of Milton’s pit bull and Hooker’s golden doodle puppy.

“I’m waiting for mine to get a little bigger,” Hooker said.

They vacationed together in the offseason in Miami. They call each other’s mothers “Mom.” When they weren’t in the same place in the offseason, Hooker said, they talked on the phone every day. Hooker is the starter, the star, the guy Milton feels responsible to push and get the best out of each day. Milton is the guy biding his time, staying ready, while Hooker urges him to keep refining those skills and getting ready for another shot at the job.

Milton’s also the chef. The quarterbacks had a large group of teammates over for the Fourth of July, with Milton preparing about 50 pieces of fried chicken, dirty rice and his mother’s macaroni recipe. Hooker chipped in with his father’s baked beans, but it’s usually Milton preparing meals.

“I can make some bad spaghetti, man,” said Milton, and while he won’t divulge his entire sauce recipe, he did say he likes to add sugar and pepperoni — with loads of the cheese on one side of the pan for his portion, and no cheese for the dairy-avoiding hooker.

This after long days together in the weight room, the film room, now on the practice field.

“I don’t think blood could make us any closer,” Hooker said.

“It’s all about having your friend’s back,” Milton said. “Not letting him go through it by himself. That’s what we live by. We push each other to be the greatest.”

And they have set the standard for leadership in the program in the process. It’s not common for a reserve to be a leader. It’s also not common anymore for a reserve who could start at many other programs to stay a reserve — especially at the quarterback position.

College athletes can finally make money off their abilities and work hard while in school, and they have more freedom to move from one program to another than they’ve ever had. That doesn’t mean they don’t value perseverance.

“You don’t see that,” Flowers said of Milton’s decision to stay at UT, which Milton said was never in question. “It’s amazing. It shows his character. Shows what type of person he is. Shows how dedicated he is. He’s not gonna give up easily on anything, and you can just tell he’s hungry. He’s ready to work. He’s not worried about what might happen. He’s not worried about what the outsiders are saying.”

If things go well for the Vols this fall, they won’t be talking much about Milton. They’ll be talking about Hooker, finding another level of play. Staying healthy behind an offensive line in search of a left tackle. Handing to Small and throwing to Tillman, Jalin Hyatt and others. Making the Vols the closest thing the SEC East can manage as a challenger to Georgia. Cementing his two-year tenure as the best at the position in Knoxville since Manning manned it.

The work continues to make all that possible. Quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle has tweaked his mechanics a bit to get more consistent with the starting point of his throws. Hooker and Golesh are more like collaborators now in terms of planning and the plays Golesh will call on Saturdays. Halzle told reporters Hooker is getting better at manipulating defenses before the snap — doing so with such success on one rep Tuesday that he “turned around, smiled at me and then kept going,” Halzle said.

Halzle wanted more of those smiles a year ago, when Hooker was in from Virginia Tech, Milton was in from Michigan and Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer were holdovers in a very different-looking Tennessee quarterback room as preseason camp got going.

“I noticed that being serious every single moment of his life didn’t work for him,” Halzle said of Hooker. “I watched him when he was messing around playing basketball, he’d get a big smile on his face, and nobody could guard him. I told him last year in the summer, ‘I want you to play football like you play basketball.’ Because when he plays basketball, he knows he’s the best player on the court.”

It looks like he’s figured that out on the football field. This quarterback room is his. This team, too. He said he isn’t bothered by the lack of preseason hype he’s getting. He has no spicy declarations — unless you get him talking about his best friend and Tennessee’s next quarterback room.

“Joe’s mind for football and IQ are extremely high. His athleticism is out of this world — he’s 6-6, 240 and he can do back flips,” Hooker said. “Amazing. The ceiling isn’t really a thing.”

(Top photo of Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton courtesy of Tennessee Athletics)

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