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Front Page - Friday, March 24, 2023

All eyes on quarterbacks as Vols open spring practice

Joe Milton III is being challenged for the starting quarterback position by freshman Nico Iamaleava. - Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com

As most of the college sports world remains focused on the hardwood for March Madness, the Tennessee football team returned to the practice field this week to begin spring practice.

The Vols are riding the momentum from an 11-win 2022 season that was capped by a victory in the Orange Bowl and No. 6 ranking in the final Associated Press poll.

The Vols are scheduled to practice 14 times over four weeks, leading up to the annual Orange & White Game April 15 in Neyland Stadium at 2:30 p.m. EDT (SEC Network+/ESPN+).

“For us, this spring, we’re truly going to be able to get reps for an entire roster of guys. Year one, we were a shell of just numbers,” says head coach Josh Heupel, overseeing his third spring practice at UT. “But we have more athletes on the grass today, so that allows you to increase the number of reps that you’re going to get during the spring. And it also creates a ton of competition, and urgency from the meeting rooms to what you’re doing on the practice field.”

QB call no snap decision

The biggest spotlight will be shined on the quarterback spot following the graduation of Hendon Hooker. Joe Milton III took over for Hooker once he was injured last season, but he will be challenged throughout the spring by incoming freshman Nico Iamaleava.

Milton is entering his third season at Tennessee after transferring from Michigan. He completed 53 or 82 passes for 971 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and has yet to throw an interception while at UT.

“I believe Joe will be ready to play at an elite level. There’s competition at every position. I’ve said that from the time that I’ve got here,” Heupel says. “I don’t care how you were recruited, if you were a walk-on or not, you started a game or not a year ago. It doesn’t matter. It’s about who you are today, and that’s why you’ve got to be very competitive in everything that you’re doing, intentional in the way that you work. (I) believe Joe will be ready to play at a high level, but there’s going to be competition everywhere.”

Iamaleava arrived from Southern California with much hype for his abilities and media attention surrounding his early NIL deals.

“He’s going to be pushed extremely quickly. Just look at where we’re at, at the quarterback position, so great urgency is going to be needed for him,” Heupel says. “He’s extremely coachable. He’s a guy that, from the moment that he stepped foot on campus – that’s bowl preparation to coming back here (at the) end of January when we started the winter semester – has been phenomenal. He’s got great urgency. He cares a great deal about learning his craft, learning our offense, but learning his craft at the quarterback position.”

Quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle was promoted to offensive coordinator to replace Alex Golesh, who left to become the head coach at the University of South Florida. Tennessee has averaged 42.7 points and 499.96 yards per game over the last two seasons, and Heupel doesn’t expect the Vols to miss a beat with Halzle in his new role.

“Coach Halzle will do a fantastic job. He’s been a leader for a long time and he’s been instrumental,” Heupel says. “We’ve been together 15, 16 years. We work hand-in-hand really well together, able to have easy conversations and have hard ones, too, and at the end of the day find what’s best for us offensively. His players have great trust in him. Coaches do, too. It’s been a really easy transition.”

Slots to fill at receiver

The Vols will need to find replacements for former starters Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman at wide receiver after both departed for the NFL. It’s a question the program had to answer last spring as well when Velus Jones Jr. departed. Others were ready to step forward.

“(I) believe in the young guys that we have in our program. They’ve got to grow, and then they’ve got to take advantage of their opportunities when they come,” Heupel says. “But (I) believe in the guys that we have here. We have some vets that have played a lot of football, that have played really well. We’ve got some new guys, young guys that are going to get more opportunities here.”

Along with the incoming freshmen, junior Dont’e Thornton, a transfer from Oregon, will provide another option at wideout.

“He’s long. He’s got great speed. He’s got experience. He’s mature. He’s got great work habits, and he’s a guy that is constantly up here in the meeting room, but also doing things in the indoor and trying to become the best that he can,” Heupel says. “He’s got some position flexibility – can play inside, can play outside. How quickly he grasps what we do offensively is going to be one of the keys for him as we go through the spring.”

Secondary depth needed

The Vols have added several new pieces to the defense as part of a solid recruiting class. Three of UT’s top four tacklers return, led by linebacker Aaron Beasley, who had 76 total tackles and 13 tackles for loss.

Building more quality depth in the secondary is a priority for the Vols.

“We made a huge jump in the run-game defense, obviously. We need to take another step in pass defense and third-down defense,” Heupel says. “But that doesn’t just strictly correlate to the secondary, right? That’s your second-level defenders. It’s your front-line guys who may be dropping into zones off your pressures. At the same time, it’s also getting to the quarterback with a four-man rush.”

Spring game a hot ticket

In a sign of how much the program’s fortunes have risen, the Vols are charging admission for premium and non-premium seating for this year’s Orange & White Game.

Non-premium seats are available for $5, and all proceeds will count as a contribution to the school’s My All Campaign, which is an athletic department fundraising initiative. All open sections of the bowl will be general admission seating.

Before the Orange & White Game, fans can attend the Vol Village Music Festival, which will be located in Lot 9 and feature live bands onstage noon-2 p.m. EDT. Vol Village will also feature food trucks and other activities.

During his opening news conference to kick off spring practice, Heupel made sure to give praise to the success of the men’s and women’s basketball team and the softball team being ranked No. 3 in the country.

“A lot of positive things going on here on Rocky Top,” he says. “and I think it speaks to the culture inside of this athletic department and this university.”