2023 will be the next big test for Josh Heupel’s quarterback pipeline, with Hendon Hooker moving on the the NFL with the Detroit Lions. Former starter and near two-year backup Joe Milton is in position to take his place, finally looking to put all the puzzle pieces together as a redshirt senior.
Five-star, No. 1 overall prospect, Nico Iamaleava won’t leave him too much room for error, however. Iamaleava comes in automatically as the backup, learning the ropes since back in December during bowl practices. That growth continued during the spring as the staff tries to get him ready to roll for the fall.
Tennessee will roll with walk-on Gaston Moore as their third quarterback. Moore has been with Heupel over the last four years and knows the system well. He’s obviously limited physically, but Heupel will take that trade-off for a guy that he’s comfortable with.
Can Joe Milton find consistency?
The arm, the athleticism, the size — it’s all there for Milton. It’s probably why he was named the starter back in 2021, honestly. If you put Milton on a practice field, you’re going to be dazzled by the raw arm ability. And Josh Heupel, running a vertical passing game, seems like a perfect match.
It just didn’t work the first time around in 2021.
Milton came in from Michigan after being named the starter there and fizzled out after several games. It was a similar situation, which the Michigan offense struggling to find consistency as Milton struggled with accuracy.
2021 comes along and it’s more of the same. The Tennessee scheme looks great, generating open throws down the field time and time again. But Milton just couldn’t hit them. That 2021 Pittsburgh game was one of the most frustrating ones to watch, simply because you knew Tennessee was the better team that day. All the throws were there. They were all overthrown.
Milton went down with an injury during that same game. Hendon Hooker entered, and the rest is history. Joe, as you know, could have entered the portal. However, he opted to stay and go to work. That work began to pay off in December as Milton led Tennessee to a dominant 31-14 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. That night was interesting looking back, because nobody knew what to expect from Joe. Credit to him though — he looked like a different guy.
We had seen the flashes in garbage time throughout the year, but to do it against that Clemson defense was something different. Suddenly, Milton had answered a few questions and firmly cemented himself as the starter going into 2023.
He entered the spring period as the unquestioned QB1, turning into a true leader of this team.
“It starts with an understanding of what we are doing, understanding defenses and being consistent with his reads,” Heupel said after the spring game. “Pair that with growth fundamentally, getting his feet in the ground and being in a consistent, positive position to be able to deliver the football from the ground up. You pair those things together and he is able to grow. You saw some of that in the way that he played at the end of last year. He has had a really good spring.”
Milton is far from a finished product. First off, we’ll need to see him string some games together to be convinced that his accuracy issues are behind him. Second, there are still some concerns about his pocket presence. There were a couple of dead moments during the Orange Bowl where the offense looked stagnant and Milton left clean pockets or took a bad sack.
However, Milton looked like a different guy throwing the ball down the field. We saw both accuracy and touch, with him dotting touchdown passes to Bru McCoy, Squirrel White and Ramel Keyton. Based off the 2021 tape, these throws were major signs of development. We saw that throughout the year in mop-up duty, too.
Will Nico Iamaleava be ready?
The Tennessee staff has taken a bit of a gamble here by not adding a veteran, but then again, with Milton and Iamaleava in town, it would have been a tough sell. This means the staff has plenty of trust in their five-star freshman passer, immediately letting him shoulder QB2 responsibilities.
Iamaleava is a mobile, lanky passer with another big arm. The ball jumps off of his hand, and he’s been regarded on the recruiting trail as a natural-born leader. He’s been all in on Tennessee since spring of 2022, attending several games last fall and getting adjusted to his new surroundings.
Those bowl practices were huge for him to get acclimated to both the system and college life, allowing him to go a little bit deeper this spring. The Tennessee staff has clearly been impressed.
“Once we got on the field with him, his ability to handle a positive play, his ability to handle a negative one and bounce back from it,” Heupel said during an appearance on 104.5 The Zone in Nashville. “His worst day was followed by one of his best days. That’s a hard thing to do. I wasn’t able to do that all the time when I was 18 years old. So he’s got all the raw tools, physical skill set that we thought. He understands, feels his body extremely well. When you talk to him about changing something, he’s able to incorporate that into his game. If he doesn’t right away, he can feel it. He’s got a tremendous ceiling. As talented and as good a work ethic as any young guy I’ve been around.”
We didn’t get to see a ton from Iamaleava during the spring game as Tennessee went with a bit of a skeleton crew at the skill positions. Still, we saw this ridiculous throw on the move, giving us a little taste of why recruiting gurus were so high on him.
This throw from Nico Iamaleava pic.twitter.com/nJnT2Y7SG9— Chalupa Batman (@CoreyCarmona) April 23, 2023
What will Tennessee have in Nico as a true freshman? Frankly, that’s a mystery to us all. What we do know, however, is who Joe Milton is. If those inconsistencies pop up, how long of a leash will the Tennessee staff have? It’s a fair question to ask, considering the amount of time Milton has had and the potential upside that Iamaleava possesses.
If we get the Joe we saw against Clemson though, that won’t be an issue. In fact, if Milton can string together that performance for a full season, we may even be talking about Joe being a fairly high draft pick.
One thing is for sure — the post Hendon Hooker era will be a fascinating prove-it spot for Josh Heupel.