Vols offense feels a sense of urgency as fall camp begins

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sophomore quarterback Harrison Bailey looks for running room during last December's loss to Florida. Bailey started the final three games of last season.

During his February introductory news conference as Tennessee's offensive coordinator, Alex Golesh labeled the quarterback competition as "a six-month process."

Golesh no longer possesses such a deliberate tone on the subject.

"We are really, really down to the wire here now 30 days out from playing," Golesh said Tuesday afternoon in a media gathering to preview Wednesday morning's start to preseason camp. "We're going to have to figure it out quick before pouring reps into whoever that is and getting the other guys behind him ready to go play. Consistency is really the word throughout our offense in general, so we want a guy who can string things together and allow coaches and teammates to trust in them.

"We are different and we are unique in how we play, so consistency is important, and it would help if they can push the ball vertically down the field."

The Volunteers have four candidates vying to take the first snap against Bowling Green inside Neyland Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 2, a matchup that will be televised by the SEC Network. It is not the identical four from February, with sophomore Harrison Bailey (6-foot-5, 220 pounds), redshirt sophomore Brian Maurer (6-3, 205) and Virginia Tech graduate transfer Hendon Hooker (6-4, 218) still in the mix but with early enrollee Kaidon Salter having been suspended in March and then dismissed from the program in June before resurfacing at Liberty.

Joe Milton (6-5, 244), who started five of six games at Michigan last season before being replaced and transferring, entered the competition following the Orange & White spring game.

"To me, there is a huge sense of urgency," Golesh said. "You want to gear and shape your offense towards who that guy is, as well as having a plan for who the next one is. You've got to have a plan A and a plan B, and with COVID still real, you've got to have a plan C and maybe even a plan D. I would like to get a pecking order as fast as we can.

"We're going to give all of those guys a really fair shake in this thing early, and then the pressure is on to at least get your top two to a point where you can at least split those reps. A week and a half is my goal to at least have a top two."

Bailey started the final three games last season, defeating Vanderbilt with ease and losing to the top-10 tandem of Florida and Texas A&M. He completed 48 of 68 passes (70.6%) for 578 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions, but any favorite status was wiped away with the change in coaches from Jeremy Pruitt to Josh Heupel.

Seeking to retain his starting role, Bailey believes he is noticeably improved from a year ago.

"I've lost five or so pounds," Bailey told reporters. "I see myself moving better in the pocket and just feel a whole lot better running. I've also been able to adjust my angles and the way I throw my deep ball.

"I'm really excited for this season."

The obvious wild card is Milton, who expressed being enamored with Heupel's offense - "It's very different from Michigan," he said Tuesday - and its objective of getting speed in space.

"I remember him out of high school, and Coach Heup recruited him at UCF, so there are a bunch of us who have seen him and studied him," Golesh said. "There is also the film of him at Michigan from a year ago. He's a really strong-armed guy and a big-body type - I mean a big, big body. He is as big of a quarterback as I've ever been around."

Said senior offensive lineman Cade Mays: "I didn't know he played quarterback the first day he got here. I thought he was a D-end or something."

A better situation

Tennessee was depleted at linebacker this spring, when Jeremy Banks and Roman Harrison were injured and Aaron Beasley was suspended. All three are back for the start of preseason camp, and the Vols have added Texas linebacker Juwan Mitchell through the transfer portal.

"It's a completely different room from where we left it," Heupel said. "We've got some guys who have played at a high level who are coming back in the fold and feel that they've got really bright futures. We've had some younger guys show glimpses of playing at a really high level. It's a position group that is much deeper compared to when we left spring ball.

"I like the talent and toughness of the guys in that room, and collectively they've had a really strong summer."

Mitchell was Tennessee's biggest acquisition through the portal, having led the Longhorns last season with 62 tackles.

"We watched him on tape and obviously saw that he was a 'see ball, get ball' type of guy who relishes contact but is also able to play in space," defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "Obviously he's a guy who's been in the fire and is eager to see how we do it here."

Sooners and 'Horns

Heupel quarterbacked Oklahoma to the 2000 national championship and was asked about the Sooners and Texas receiving invitations to join the SEC in 2025.

"You want to coach and play in this league, because you get a chance to compete against the best every single day and every single week," Heupel said. "This league continues to strengthen itself inside the landscape of college football, and I'm excited about what our league continues to do."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.