Mark Wiedmer: UT's four-horse quarterback race is wide open

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Aug. 4—KNOXVILLE — If this four-man University of Tennessee quarterback competition that's about to begin was being decided by a video game, redshirt sophomore Brian Maurer is pretty sure he knows who would win.

"Me, he said emphatically. "Joe (Milton III) would probably be second."

Unfortunately for the quick-fingered Maurer, new Vols coach Josh Heupel probably won't pay much attention to those virtual battles between true sophomore and part-time 2020 starter Harrison Bailey, Virginia Tech grad transfer Hendon Hooker, Maurer and Michigan transfer Milton, the redshirt junior.

Instead, according to Heupel during Tuesday's media event in advance of the start of fall camp, "You have to trust them (quarterbacks). They have the ball in their hands every single play. He's got to be about not playing a game at perfection."

UT offensive coordinator Alex Golesh went further, noting, "We're unique in the way we play. You've got to operate within the system. The ability to manage the offense, give us the best chance to score. One word: Consistency."

But which of the four best fits those preferences is a different matter. They all have strengths. The also all have weaknesses, beginning with the fact that none of the four has previously played a game for Heupel in his high-octane offense.

However, both Maurer and Milton were previously recruited by Heuepel, even if neither player chose to sign with the schools he worked for.

In the case of Maurer, Heupel worked hard to lure the Ocala, Florida, product to Central Florida during his time there as head coach.

When asked why he rebuffed Heupel back then in favor of the Big Orange, Maurer's answer was actually a compliment.

"My thinking was, he's an amazing coach," Maurer said of Heupel. "So I thought he would not still be there (CFU) to see me graduate."

Milton, who grew up in Pahokee, Fla., was actually wooed by the UT coach on two occasions.

"The first time was when he was an assistant at Missouri," the player recalled. "He'd text me after their games and ask, 'Can you see yourself doing that in my offense?' Then he recruited me again for Central Florida. I guess the third time's the charm."

It certainly seems that way from the 6-5, 244-pound Milton's perspective.

"I can't stop smiling," he said. "Every day I'm walking around the field thinking, 'It's a new me.'"

A single quote on how physically imposing Milton is: "The first time I saw him I thought he was a defensive end," said veteran offensive lineman Cade Mays.

Then there's Hooker, who previously started at Virginia Tech before he decided he needed a change of scenery.

"I finished my degree (public relations) and decided it was time for a fresh start," said Hooker, who threw for over 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns and rushed for 620 yards and nine more scores during his 2020 season with the Hokies.

"I wanted to play on a bigger stage and this (the Southeastern Conference) is the best football in the nation."

Then, of course, there is true sophomore Harrison Bailey, the Marietta, Georgia, product who threw for four touchdowns in his final three games, starting three times total under former coach Jeremy Pruitt.

Bailey often seems the least physically impressive of the four, but when you hear the UT coaches speak of consistency and trust and operating within a system, Bailey seems perfect for the task.

"It's a different situation than a year ago," he said. "Different coach, different mindset."

Of the four quarterbacks, Bailey said, "We have different personalities, but it's all really cool."

Added Maurer: "We're all starting with a clean slate. We're each learning from each other every day of the year."

How cool it will remain in that quarterback room as practice proceeds and a leader for the starting position emerges isn't yet known.

In that area, Milton, who began last season as the Michigan starter, would appear to have an edge in confidence, even if Hooker is the most experienced.

"I like the competition," the ex-Wolverine said. "There's no pressure. I don't feel pressure. I just need to take care of what I need to take care of."

Asked if he worried that missing spring practice before he decided to transfer to Volsville might put him at a disadvantage, he replied, "You've seen my social media. I'm always watching film."

Heupel said he expected to name a starter before the first game. Golesh joked, "I'd like nobody to know until Sept. 2nd (the day of the opener against Bowling Green)."

The hunch here is that Bailey starts the opener with Hooker as his backup. A second hunch is that by midway through the season, either Milton or Hooker will start with the other as a backup because they can both run and pass while Bailey and Maurer are lesser threats with their feet.

But with the season opener inside Neyland Stadium now less than 30 days away, Maurer also astutely noted that this much is certain for all four quarterbacks: "It's a fresh start for all of us."

Especially as long as Heupel doesn't rely on a video game tournament to name his starter.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at

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