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Heupel confident in Joe Milton heading into Vanderbilt matchup

Milton’s second chance at Tennessee begins this week.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 19 Tennessee at South Carolina Photo by Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Joe Milton era has officially been restarted in Knoxville. The veteran quarterback will get his first start since last season against Pittsburgh on Saturday night, replacing Heisman candidate Hendon Hooker, who suffered a torn ACL in the loss to South Carolina.

Milton suffered an injury in that final start against Pitt, opening the door for Hooker. As it turned out, Hooker took the job and ran with it, putting together two of the best statistical seasons at quarterback that we had ever seen at Tennessee. With about 14 months on the sidelines, it’s now up to Milton to finish the job in 2022.

Tennessee still has a New Year’s Six bowl bid to play for on Saturday night against Vanderbilt, a team that has won two straight games. It’s a tricky spot for the Volunteers, especially with Hooker sidelined.

This is why Milton returned. With the COVID season rule, Milton saw his opportunity to start next season after Hooker departed. As it turns out, that third chance as a starter has come about ten months ahead of schedule.

“Joe has grown a bunch,” Josh Heupel said on Monday. “You guys have seen the way that he’s played when he’s been given the opportunity. He’s got really good command of what we’re doing. We don’t change what we do. He’ll be ready to go in this one.”

Milton has lit up garbage time this year, flashing that tantalizing arm over and over again. But beating up on teams in the fourth quarter is one thing, starting the game at 0-0 is another. That part didn’t go well for Milton in 2021 as he struggled in particular with downfield accuracy.

There’s little doubt that Milton is the most talented arm in the Tennessee quarterback room, but has he learned touch? Has his decision making improved? Josh Heupel says yes, but we’re about to find out in real time.

“Well, I think he’s a lot more comfortable in what we’re doing, so in the run game, and just in his decision-making process, eyes – all of it – he’s a lot further ahead than where we saw him at the beginning of last season,” Heupel said. “The guys around him have changed, too. I anticipate him playing at a really high level.”

On the year, Milton is 23-33 for 573 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions.

Here’s another wrinkle to consider. With Tayven Jackson’s collarbone issue, Tennessee has exactly one scholarship quarterback on the depth chart for Saturday. Preserving Milton now becomes a key for Heupel and Alex Golesh with two games left on the year. Behind Milton will be two virtual unknowns — Gaston Moore and Navy Shuler.

Heupel says he won’t shy away from using Milton in the run game, but we’ll see if that’s actually true this weekend.

“Gaston and Navy are two guys that have been in our system for a while – Gaston, in particular,” Heupel said. “With Joe, we’ve got to go play, got to find a way to win this game, so we’ll use him as needed in the run game, too.”

Moore has been with Heupel for three seasons now, dating back to UCF. He certainly has experience in the system, though obviously hasn’t been in any sort of competitive atmosphere to this point.

Vanderbilt has been awful against the pass this year, almost as bad as Tennessee has, which is really saying something. Milton will have his opportunities, and I’m fascinated to see how his second chance as Heupel’s starter begins. One note — keep an eye on wide receiver injuries this week. Cedric Tillman is banged up and Bru McCoy seems questionable at best. That could force Squirrel White and Ramel Keyton into bigger roles on Saturday night.

Tennessee needs to flush last weekend and take care of business in Nashville to keep this program’s trajectory pointing in the right direction. Winning this one and getting to the Orange Bowl or Cotton Bowl would quickly stop the bleeding — and it’s all on Milton’s shoulders. Let’s see what he’s got.

Per DraftKings Sportsbook, Tennessee is now a 14 point favorite on Saturday night in Nashville. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.