Photo By Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics
The transfer portal is officially open and silly season is here with it.
Tennessee will be active in the portal and we looked at some positions the Vols will likely pursue last week. But what about quarterback?
With Hendon Hooker off to professional football, Tennessee has two returning scholarship quarterbacks on its roster— Joe Milton III and Tayven Jackson. Josh Heupel and his staff are bringing in five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava.
This creates an extremely interesting dilemma for Tennessee’s coaching staff. The Vols have a veteran quarterback who’s sat behind Hooker, waiting his turn and learning over the last two seasons. Iamaleava is an extremely talented player and the future of the program while Jackson is a seemingly capable player that provides quality depth.
But can any of those three play at high enough a level for Tennessee’s offense to avoid a major drop off with Hooker off to the NFL?
In three starts at Tennessee, Milton has not played particularly well. Milton completed less than 50% of his passes in the Vols’ 2021 season opener against Bowling Green before struggling mightily the following week against Pitt before getting knocked out of the game and losing his starting job.
The Michigan transfer played well off the bench this year but in his lone start against Vanderbilt a lot of the same issues — over throws and little touch on underneath and intermediate passes — persisted from the season before. Tennessee beat Vanderbilt, 56-0, and Milton played a clean game on a rainy Nashville night but he didn’t look like a different player than from last season.
We’ll get to see what Milton can do against an elite defense in a big game at the end of this month, but at this point Milton doesn’t look like a quarterback capable of leading Tennessee to a 9-10 win regular season unless the Vols’ defense dramatically improves.
Sure, Milton could improve and grow over the offseason but the former Michigan quarterback has been consistent in his struggles over his five college seasons.
Iamaleava is the future of the program but is he a day one starter in college? It seems like a risky assumption to make. It also seems challenging for Iamaleava to unseat a locker room leader like Milton in spring and fall practice. At the very least, Iamaleava would have to be extremely impressive to win over all his new teammates.
It’s hard to see Tennessee’s offense not taking a sizable step back with Milton or Iamaleava behind center so the answer is yes right? Tennessee should pursue a transfer quarterback.
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But that doesn’t mean they should take any quarterback. That brings us to the challenge of adding a quarterback through the portal.
Despite Heupel’s success developing quarterbacks and Tennessee’s high powered offense, the Vols aren’t an extremely attractive quarterback destination at this time.
For one, Tennessee won’t guarantee the starting job to any transfer and said transfer will have to beat out both Milton and Iamaleava. Then there’s the fact that Iamaleava is the quarterback of the future. Tennessee likely would want to add a veteran quarterback and not a young quarterback with time to develop.
Then there’s the other side of Iamaleava being the quarterback of the future. The Vols have invested a lot of NIL capital on the top five recruit. Pursuing top quarterbacks in the transfer portal will be a NIL venture. With Iamaleava coming in, Tennessee likely won’t make the commitment to a transfer quarterback that other teams will make.
And while Milton and Iamaleava aren’t on the same level as Hooker, not many quarterbacks are. There will be a small contingent of quarterbacks in the portal that play at a level similar to Hooker. The rest will share more similarities with Milton and Iamaleava.
With Jackson providing quality depth, will it be worth it to use a scholarship on a quarterback with similar capabilities to the rest of the quarterback room?
That’s a question for Heupel and his staff to answer in the coming months. It’s not an easy question to answer but it’s a big one. What Heupel and his staff decide will have major ramifications on next season.