Vols moving forward with Milton: ‘He’s going to lead us’

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Joe Milton III, left, will take over as Tennessee’s starting quarterback after Hendon Hooker suffered a season-ending knee injury during Saturday night’s 63-38 loss at South Carolina.

After 22 consecutive starts by Hendon Hooker, the Tennessee Volunteers are again under the quarterbacking guidance of Joe Milton III.

Hooker's season-ending knee injury during Saturday night's stunning 63-38 loss at South Carolina has resulted in the reins being handed back to the 6-foot-5, 245-pounder from Pahokee, Florida, who began his college career at Michigan. Milton started last season's opening games for the Vols against Bowling Green and Pittsburgh before getting injured and replaced by Hooker, who became Tennessee's most efficient passer of all-time and racked up 58 touchdown tosses to just five interceptions.

The No. 9 Vols take a 9-2 overall record and a 5-2 Southeastern Conference mark to Nashville this week to face Vanderbilt, which is 5-6 overall and 2-5 in league play following consecutive upsets of Kentucky and Florida.

"With Joe, we've got to play, and we've got to find a way to win this game," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said during Monday's weekly news conference. "We'll use him as needed in the run game, too. Joe has grown a bunch, and 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, and he'll be ready to go in this one."

Milton has played in seven of 11 games this year, completing 23 of 33 passes (69.7%) for 573 yards and six touchdowns. Most of his action has transpired in mop-up duty against Ball State, Akron, UT Martin and Missouri, as he has completed 19 of 24 attempts for 465 yards and five scores in those four blowouts.

After Hooker went down early in the fourth quarter, Milton completed 4 of 8 passes against the Gamecocks for 108 yards, including a 21-yard scoring strike to Cedric Tillman with 1:14 remaining. All four of Milton's incompletions were overthrows, which was an issue that plagued him early last season.

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

With Hooker out with a torn ACL and with freshman Tayven Jackson sidelined with a collarbone injury, Milton is Tennessee's lone healthy scholarship quarterback. Behind him on the depth chart Saturday will be redshirt sophomore walk-ons Gaston Moore and Navy Shuler.

A win by Tennessee clinches the program's first 10-win season since 2003 and the potential of an attractive New Year's Six bowl destination such as Dallas, Miami or New Orleans.

"Joe is a hard worker, too -- no different than Hendon," Vols senior linebacker Aaron Beasley said Monday. "He and Hendon were pretty tight in the quarterback room, so I feel like it won't be too big of a drop-off. He learned a lot from Hendon, and he's a good leader even with Hendon on the field.

"He's going to come ready to work, and he's going to lead us."

Heupel said that Hooker will be with the team this week and that it will be good for his teammates to see him and feel him around the meetings and practices. He added that there are other leaders on the roster as well and has confidence that they will step up amid this adversity.

Milton is a fifth-year senior who is expected to use the extra year of eligibility allowed by the NCAA due to the coronavirus outbreak and return to the Vols in 2023, but Heupel said this is all about the here and now.

"This week is all about this week," Heupel said. "Let's go finish this off the right way."


No reason given

Heupel was asked Monday whether linebacker Jeremy Banks missed the South Carolina game as the result of a recent altercation with a teammate and if Banks would be available Saturday.

"We anticipate Jeremy being with us here this week," Heupel said. "As far as what transpired and those types of things, at the end of the day, he wasn't available."

Banks, who has never been made available to the media since arriving in 2018 out of Cordova High School, led the Vols in tackles last season with a whopping 128. In 10 games this season, the 6-1, 224-pounder has 46 tackles, eight quarterback hurries, four tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.


Odds and ends

Junior receiver Jalin Hyatt is among the 12 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award, with Georgia sophomore tight end Brock Bowers being the other representative from the SEC. ... Heupel on any lingering effects from Saturday night's loss: "You could still feel it a little bit from the guys today as they came into the building." ... The Vols are up to 22 commitments for the 2023 signing cycle after receiving a nonbinding pledge from three-star running back Khalifa Keith (6-1, 225) of Parker High School in Birmingham. ... Tennessee leads the series with Vanderbilt 78-32-5, but the past 10 meetings have yielded a 5-5 split.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.