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The case for starting Hendon Hooker—and what to do with Joe Milton

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Tennessee has a choice to make with its quarterback room.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Saul Young/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

In a sentence that might be familiar to Tennessee football fans for the past five seasons: A decision needs to be made at the quarterback position.

In place of an injured Joe Milton, backup Hendon Hooker started against Tennessee Tech last Saturday. Hooker helped lead the team to a 56-0 win, racking up over 260 total yards and four touchdowns of his own. Hooker built on his showing in the Pittsburgh loss, where he had a couple of costly turnovers, but overall looked capable of being the starter.

It doesn’t get easier from here on out. Tennessee is set to begin SEC conference play next Saturday, when they face off against the No. 11 Florida Gators in Gainesville. We wish the quarterback position had been solidified in the first three games, but unfortunately it looks tougher than first thought.

The contenders at this point are clear: It’s either Joe Milton or Hendon Hooker. So who will start against the Gators...and presumably the rest of the way?

After looking at the tape and getting a feel for this team, I argue that the nod should go to Hooker.

Here’s the thing: Hooker is not a revelation at quarterback. He is not the clear cut, no-questions-asked starter. Beating out Joe Milton really just happened due to an unfortunate injury.

Truthfully, Hooker and Milton are not separated by much. It’s an odd thing when you have two quarterbacks and they both have the same strengths and weaknesses. Both Milton and Hooker can really gash teams on the ground, and get the ball out quickly on short routes and screen passes—which benefits a hurry-up offense. Both of them also struggle with longer developing routes. I’m sure someone has kept track of just how many open receivers both have missed on deep passes.

All this to say, if you are choosing one quarterback over the other, it’s simply because you like their style of play a bit more.

That is essentially my logic behind giving Hooker the nod as starter. His running style seems to be a bit shiftier, and he can make guys miss in a way that Milton can’t. Milton instead seems to be a closer horse, who takes a while to reach his full speed, and outruns a defense in the final stretch. That is still a useful trait to have.

But with how Tennessee has looked in the first few weeks, Hooker’s ability to quickly gain yards is more needed at this point. The Volunteers have somewhat struggled with short yardage situations in particular. They don’t need home runs, they need singles or doubles.

I’d also point out that while Hooker is still not great with deep ball accuracy, he does seem to be closer than Milton. His passes are in the same ballpark as his receivers. Whereas Milton was overthrowing them by five yards in some instances. Hooker’s ball placement against Tennessee Tech was very spotty—but he still managed to connect on one or two of them. That’s better than zero. With passes like that, it could be the difference between winning by three and losing by 14.

It’s also apparent why Harrison Bailey is not anywhere close to being the starter. Everyone was enthralled with his ability to throw deep, which he did deserve credit for last season. But many observers forget—arm strength does not necessarily translate to sharp throws. This was a factor that was overlooked by many after the first couple of games.

The truth is, Bailey does not have great zip on the ball. In most college offenses, he would have enough to be a great starter. But in this offense, Heupel needs a guy who can quickly get it to receivers on the sides of the field. That’s something that Bailey does not excel at. Meanwhile, Milton and Hooker can both throw fastballs.

So let’s say Hooker is named starter. What should they do with Milton?

I don’t think you throw away his skillset completely. You could treat Milton like you do the running backs, and put him in whenever you need a change of pace from Hooker. After all, Milton won the starting job for a reason. As a coaching staff, you have to be responsive to what you see on the field. But you cannot dismiss what you saw in the preseason either. These coaches had months to see the quarterbacks, and what they saw led them to believe Milton deserved the starting nod. That still means something.

Let’s also be very honest: Tennessee has not had a tough schedule. They have faced a bad FBS team; a middle of the road FBS team (who they lost to); and a bad FCS team. There is still a distinct possibility that once the Volunteers get into the meat of their SEC schedule, the quarterback options start looking very different. Maybe Milton can better withstand the toughness of the schedule than Hooker. We don’t know yet.

Ultimately, I don’t think the decision it’s going to make or break this staff. They are not dealing with a plethora of great options at the position. But they are still in the hunt for a bowl game, and in order to reach that goal, they will need to put their best foot forward. At this point, I think Hooker is the way to go.