If Joe Milton is joining Tennessee football, then which Vols QB is leaving? | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer

Tennessee’s pursuit of quarterback Joe Milton, a Michigan transfer, tells me two things.

First-year UT coach Josh Heupel is enticed by Milton’s skillset and thinks he can develop him better than Michigan did. And Heupel isn’t enamored with the collection of quarterbacks he inherited from predecessor Jeremy Pruitt.

Milton hasn’t signed yet, but the Vols are expected to add him as a summer enrollee with three years of eligibility. He should be eligible to play in 2021 thanks to the NCAA Division I Council approving a one-time transfer exception rule this month.

Adding Milton is a calculated risk. He’d become Tennessee’s fifth scholarship quarterback. When it comes to quarterbacks, five is a crowd.

Milton’s arrival could encourage a quarterback who’s on the roster and not atop the depth chart to depart. Surely Heupel realizes that and is comfortable with the possibility.

Milton will face an uphill battle toward winning the job, having not gained the benefit of learning Heupel’s system this spring.

Hendon Hooker, the Virginia Tech graduate transfer, leads the spring competition for the starting job. Brian Maurer and Harrison Bailey are competing behind Hooker. Four-star early enrollee Kaidon Salter hasn’t practiced this spring while serving an indefinite suspension.

If Bailey exits the spring No. 3 on the depth chart, I wonder whether he’ll test the NCAA transfer portal, knowing that Milton and Salter will crowd the competition.

Bailey started three games to finish last season. He showed accuracy and poise. He doesn’t have the strongest arm, but that’s not a requirement for every system.

The Vols don’t need more depth at quarterback. They need more production.

For Heupel to pursue Milton at the risk of losing one of his current quarterbacks suggests that he thinks Milton is a legitimate option to lead this offense.

His career stats suggest otherwise.

VOICE OF THE PEOPLE:After 'Vol Calls' snub, Robbie from Tallahassee gets his say on Vols football

Milton started the first five games of last season before losing the starting job after poor performances against Wisconsin and Rutgers  – a Rutgers team that went 3-6 and had one of the Big Ten’s worst pass defenses. For the season, Milton completed 56.7% of his passes with four touchdowns and four interceptions.

But the 6-foot-5, 243-pound junior possesses some physical tools that made him a coveted four-star prospect – namely, his strong arm. Michigan receiver Giles Jackson told the Detroit Free Press last year that Milton has “one of the strongest arms I’ve ever seen.”

I don’t know whether Heupel is the answer to Tennessee’s tumble from relevance, but I don’t doubt his ability to develop quarterbacks, a position that tied down the Vols’ offense the past four seasons.

A Heisman Trophy runner-up as a player at Oklahoma, Heupel was Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford’s position coach for the Sooners. Drew Lock, who’s now in the NFL, played two seasons in Heupel's system at Missouri. Central Florida’s Dillon Gabriel led the nation last season in passing yards per game under Heupel’s tutelage.

If Heupel thinks Milton is the right fit for this offense, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

HIT THE PORTAL:Thinking of entering the fan transfer portal? Consider these 5 SEC schools.

Heupel needs a quarterback who will make smart, quick decisions to direct his fast-paced offense. He needs a quarterback who will make proper reads on run-pass option plays, knowing where to go with the football.

Those are the base qualifications for operating Heupel’s offense. What really moves the needle is an ability to stretch the field.

I asked former Missouri wide receiver Emanuel Hall in February what Heupel craves for his offense. Hall said two things: a strong-armed quarterback, and speedy wide receivers.

“If they have that, then they will be just fine,” said Hall, who played two seasons in Heupel’s system at Missouri.

HERE'S AN IDEA:SEC football teams should ditch spring games and play these opponents instead

Missouri led the SEC in total offense in 2017 with Heupel as offensive coordinator, not by dinking and dunking down the field, but because Lock threw an excellent deep ball. The Tigers led the SEC that season in pass plays that gained at least 20 yards.

“He loves those (strong-armed) quarterbacks,” Hall said of Heupel. “Just throw it down the field and let the receiver run up under it.”

No one is going to throw it farther than Milton, who once told reporters he can throw a football 85 yards.

Arm strength alone won’t allow Milton to win Tennessee’s quarterback job, but it gives him a shot.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Milton has two years of eligibility remaining. Because the 2020 season did not count against an athlete's eligibility, he has three years remaining.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.