KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's quarterback competition has been intriguing since Josh Heupel's hiring in January, so why should that change now?
Joe Milton started his second consecutive game for the Volunteers on Saturday afternoon but was injured in the second quarter and replaced by Hendon Hooker, who seized the moment by completing 15 of 21 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns. The graduate transfer from Virginia Tech also rushed nine times for 49 yards, but it wasn't quite enough in a 41-34 loss to Pittsburgh.
"Hendon did a great job coming off the bench and competing and giving us a chance," Heupel said. "He made some plays with his feet, and he was decisive with the ball in his hands. He has some things he wants to do better, but I thought our football team rallied around him and competed extremely hard."
Milton was injured by Panthers linebacker Keyshon Camp during a sack that caused a fumble, and Heupel said he was not healthy enough to return in the second half.
So who starts when the Vols host Tennessee Tech next Saturday?
"We're going to go back and watch the tape and evaluate everybody," Heupel said. "We'll evaluate the quarterback position as well. It's a game-by-game evaluation, and that's true for everybody. We're on this 12-game journey, because that's all that we're guaranteed, and you take it one week at a time.
"That's a message that's always true."
Milton was 7-of-12 passing for 50 yards and rushed five times for 54 yards before his injury. His incompletions were mostly the result of sizable overthrows.
"You saw the same things that we did," Heupel said. "We had some guys running free and weren't able to finish the play. The early one with Jalin (Hyatt) where Jalin got banged up was a chance for a big play early in the ballgame. We had another one with Cedric (Tillman) running down the field open. At the end of the day, we didn't convert on them."
Hooker's biggest gaffe was getting intercepted by Brandon Hill at the Pitt 17 with 4:52 remaining in what would be Tennessee's final snap of the game. Heupel said Hendon "has to know where the backside safety is."
Tennessee's players were not surprised the transition from Milton to Hooker went so smoothly.
"All of our quarterbacks are ready to go," redshirt junior tight end Jacob Warren said. "I truly believe that. Every single week, they're all taking reps in practice, and they know exactly what looks we're going to get and exactly what plays we're going to run. We have 100% confidence in all of them."
Said sophomore receiver Jimmy Calloway: "We didn't tweak anything. Everybody knows the plays, and the plays never changed. We just stick to us."
Tennessee's special teams played a monstrous role in the Vols leading 10-0 after the first quarter.
Freshman safety Christian Charles broke through to block a Pitt punt at the 2-yard line less than 30 seconds into the game. Paxton Brooks launched a 51-yard punt that was downed at the 2. Chase McGrath connected on a 37-yard field goal for the 10-0 lead, and Tennessee's kickoff coverage then halted the Panthers at their 8.
"I do see it as a unit that can be a strength for us," Heupel said. "I really believe that we have to win the special teams every single week. Our coverage teams did a great job early in the football game of putting them in tough situations, and you saw them fair catch the rest of the way. Obviously the blocked punt gave us great field position and a great start.
"There were really positive things out there all day long. We created field position throughout the course of the ballgame, and we've got some guys on the unit who are starting to grow as football players."
Early in the third quarter, senior safety Theo Jackson had a 100-yard return of Pitt's 56-yard field-goal attempt that came up short, but a block in the back negated the play.
"I don't know if we were in the back or not at the beginning of the return," Heupel said. "I just saw the end of it and thought it was clean, but it obviously had an opportunity to be a big play in the game."
Said Jackson: "As soon as I saw the flag, that was heartbreaking."
The Vols played without starting center Cooper Mays, who suffered an ankle injury in the opener against Bowling Green, and without running back Tiyon Evans, who had 16 carries for 116 yards and a touchdown in that win against the Falcons. Also missing were junior edge rusher Byron Young, who continues to deal with an NCAA eligibility issue, and senior defensive lineman LaTrell Bumphus, who played 19 snaps in the opener.
In Saturday's second quarter, Tennessee lost not only Milton but running back Jabari Small.
"We got a bunch of guys banged up," Heupel said. "I don't have an update on everybody, and as we go through this weekend, we'll be able to clarify where more guys are as far as being able to play this next week."
Heupel said sophomore edge rusher Tyler Baron was nicked up multiple times in the game.
Odds and ends
Small's 2-yard touchdown run after the blocked punt marked the first time Tennessee scored on its first offensive play since Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter connected for 80 yards against Ole Miss in 2010. ... Velus Jones had 122 yards on four kickoff returns and has 2,519 for his career as the Football Bowl Subdivision's active leader. ... Earning their first career starts were offensive lineman Ollie Lane and linebackers Aaron Beasley and Solon Page. ... Jackson had 11 tackles for a second consecutive contest.