Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee first-year football coach Josh Heupel believes there will be a right time for fifth-year senior quarterback Hendon Hooker to make his decision regarding next season.

This time last year, Jarrett Guarantano, Brian Maurer, J.T. Shrout and Harrison Bailey were the four scholarship members of Tennessee's quarterback room, and now none of them are around for the Volunteers.

Graduate transfers Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton are the lone two scholarship quarterbacks currently for the Vols, with Hooker ranking sixth nationally in passing efficiency as Tennessee prepares to close out a 5-5 regular season with games against the visiting duo of South Alabama and Vanderbilt. Although Hooker is a fifth-year senior, he has the opportunity to return next season due to the extra year of eligibility allowed by the NCAA due to the coronavirus.

It's certainly a burning question among Tennessee fans who are thankful that Hooker has helped coach Josh Heupel lay this first-year foundation, but it's a decision that will have to wait.

"I think it's important that he finishes this season the right way and that all of these kids make an educated decision outside of a public forum," Heupel said Monday in a news conference. "We want our guys to have an opportunity at the next level. We want them to make the right decision at the right time for them, so you get the feedback from different people and present them the information to help them make an educated decision."

Hooker said during the open date that followed the loss at Alabama and preceded the win at Kentucky that he had not thought about his decision and that he was still concentrating on the season.

Tennessee's season will continue Saturday night against a South Alabama program that is 5-5 overall but just 2-5 in the Sun Belt Conference. The Jaguars also have a first-year coach with Kane Wommack and share Bowling Green as a comment opponent, with the Vols having routed the Falcons 38-6 and USA having topped them 22-19.

The winner of Saturday's game in Neyland Stadium attains bowl eligibility.

"It's big, because it shows progress in year one over the course of the season," Heupel said, "and the practices on the back end of it are instrumental in being able to develop your young guys. You get them in the weight room, and all those things are huge as you push your program forward, but the big thing for us is focusing on this week.

"Our competitive nature has to be the same, and I think that's one of the ways in which we've continued to grow. Earlier in the year, I wasn't always happy with that, but this next opponent is the only one we get to play this week."

Vols junior receiver Ramel Keyton added, "We've still got to come to play. We've still got to win the game," when asked about this week's challenge, but then he discussed what a strong close could produce.

"If we can win out and go to a bowl game, we can go into next year with a lot of momentum," Keyton said. "We want to win the games next year that we lost this year so we can be playing for something bigger."


Quarterly reports

It's well-documented that Tennessee is a fast-starting team, outscoring opponents 148-44 during the first quarter, which included a 14-7 lead at Alabama and a 10-7 edge against Georgia.

The second quarter hasn't been as kind to the Vols, as they've been outscored 113-71.

"I think it's just the ability to just continue to be dialed in during the second quarter," Heupel said. "You experience success, but you can't take anything for granted. You have to continue to do the ordinary things at a very high level. When we do those, we move the football, and when we don't, we struggle.

"You look at pass protection the other night in the second quarter, and there were some things that we struggled with. Hendon was a little bit off, and then all of a sudden, you're going three-and-out or turning the ball over at midfield."


Banks on a roll

After four consecutive double-digit tackle performances, Vols redshirt junior linebacker Jeremy Banks is racing away with the team lead with 89 stops.

"With some of the guys who have gotten nicked up throughout the course of the season, his consistency of being available, his toughness and his continued growth at that position and understanding how to play that position has been a big part of what we've done defensively," Heupel said.

Senior defensive back Trevon Flowers is next with 69 tackles.


It's never enough

With Georgia leading Tennessee 41-10 midway through the fourth quarter of its eventual 41-17 win, the Bulldogs still had defensive backs Lewis Cine and Derion Kendrick on the field. In the final minute, defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt was injured.

On Monday, Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart was asked why some of his prominent defenders remained in the game.

"I don't know that any lead is safe when you talk about them," Smart said. "Last I checked, they had 21 points in 13 plays against Kentucky, so you've got to be careful, because they can score really fast. We also only traveled 70 players, and we play everybody on defense anyway.

"When you're playing that group and they can score that fast, I'm not taking anything for granted."


Odds and ends

Next week's regular-season finale against visiting Vanderbilt will have a 3:45 p.m. kickoff on the SEC Network. ... Defensive coordinator Tim Banks is among the 58 nominees for the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant.

Contact David Paschall or 423-757-6524.