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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III chose to return for a second season with the Volunteers despite losing the starting job early last September to Hendon Hooker.

Competing is competing, but competitions aren't always the same.

Tennessee began the second preseason camp of the Josh Heupel era Monday morning with Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton III taking snaps at quarterback just as they did last August in Knoxville. Yet the landscape a year ago was very different, as Hooker, Milton, Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer were in a wide-open race for the top job.

This year's clear-cut pecking order has Hooker as the starter and Milton the backup, with freshman Tayven Jackson and Appalachian State transfer Navy Shuler further down the depth chart.

"We're kind of looking at it as he's helping me get better, and I'm helping him get better," Milton said of his second year in competition with Hooker. "We're kind of just keeping it going. When I first got here, there was some competitiveness, but we knew that deep down the road we would be one.

"When I got hurt in the Pitt game, he was there for me. I don't think he did any media after that game. He was making sure I was good, and we got some food after that."

Hooker and Milton arrived last year via the transfer portal, with Hooker having started his career at Virginia Tech and Milton at Michigan. Though he was the last to arrive to the competition and missed out on spring practice, Milton landed the starting job and quarterbacked the Volunteers to a 38-6 opening victory over Bowling Green.

In the 41-34 loss to Pittsburgh that followed, however, Milton tore two ligaments in his ankle during a 54-yard run.

Hooker was thrust into action and never looked back, completing 206 of 303 passes (68.0%) for 2,945 yards with 31 touchdowns and only three interceptions. His efficiency rating of 181.41 ranked third nationally, and he also rushed 166 times for 616 yards (3.7 yards per carry) and five scores in guiding the Vols to a better-than-expected 7-5 regular season and an invitation to the Music City Bowl.

Milton battled accuracy issues on deep throws before his injury and wound up completing 32 of 62 attempts (51.6%) for 375 yards and two scores. He added 129 yards on 28 carries (4.6), reaching the end zone twice.

When Hooker announced before the bowl that he was returning, nobody would have been surprised if Milton wanted to try his luck at a third locale.

"In life, you face a lot of adversities," Milton said, "and you want to find your way through tough things. I had no reason to leave here. I was having fun.

"I'm still learning something new every day and am enjoying life."

Vols second-year offensive coordinator Alex Golesh certainly appreciates having both Hooker and Milton back, not only from experience and productivity standpoints but for the intangibles they provide.

"Hendon and Joe have a competitive relationship with each other that has been fun to watch, because they do truly like each other and encourage each other," Golesh said. "They're each other's biggest fans. Our younger guys see that's how to act and that's how you come to work."

Hooker and Milton are roommates, along with Hooker's Goldendoodle and Milton's Pit Bull. Hooker describes the two as each other's biggest critic, adding, "We're always nit-picking each other."

An ankle injury cost Milton the starting job last season, but he knows he's only a Hooker ankle injury from being back on the field.

"It's a great lesson for everybody in our program, because we talk about wanting to be ready when your opportunity comes and to prepare that way to take advantage of it," Heupel said. "It speaks to the unique relationship that exists in that quarterback room. To be able to compete fiercely with somebody but also be great friends outside of the game speaks to both of those guys and to the culture we have inside of our building."

Said Golesh: "I give those two a lot of credit, because that's more than I could do at 22 years old. If somebody was in front of me, I would have a hard time being a good soldier."

 

Position change

Tennessee's top in-state signee in its 2022 class was receiver Cameron Miller of Memphis.

On Monday, the 6-foot-1, 206-pound early enrollee began his first preseason at safety.

"From the time we recruited him, we viewed him as a football player, and that's how he sees himself, too," Heupel said after the inaugural workout. "He doesn't really care what he's playing. As we got through spring ball, we just felt like his skill set and his opportunity to compete and make an impact was probably on the other side of the ball.

"It's his first time playing that position, but he's been real diligent."

 

Slot competition

If left tackle is Golesh's position battle of most intrigue this month, then slot receiver might be a close second.

"I think that competition in the slot with Jalin (Hyatt) and Jimmy (Calloway) and Squirrel (White) and with Walker (Merrill) being able to get in there as well — I'm excited to see those guys," he said. "Jalin had a really, really good spring, and Jimmy finished spring really well. Squirrel was so exciting to see this spring, just because of what his mental makeup is and what his skill set is.

"Squirrel, in so many ways, is mature beyond his years, and I've said before that so much of what a season entails is who can handle it. There are more distractions than there ever have been, but if we leave camp at that position with some depth, I would be beyond excited. That would be much better than we were a year ago."

 

Butler up first

Tennessee will open against Butler in the Battle 4 Atlantis basketball tournament in the Bahamas on Nov. 23. Should the Vols prevail, they would face the winner of the BYU-Southern California game.

The three-day event is headlined by reigning national champion Kansas.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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