What the spring game revealed about Tennessee's QB competition
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee finished up spring practice with the annual Orange & White Game on Saturday. The high-scoring exhibition ended the same way that so many spring scrimmages had since Josh Dobbs left … with the Vols heading into the fall with questions at the quarterback position.
It has been a revolving door of starting quarterbacks. Quinten Dormady. Jarrett Guarantano. Will McBride. Brian Maurer. J.T. Shrout. Harrison Bailey. Heck we should probably mention wide receiver Jauan Jennings, too, since he took the first snap out of the Wildcat in the 2019 South Carolina game.
New head coach Josh Heupel has options. Good options, it appears.
There’s Virginia Tech grad transfer Hendon Hooker, Bailey, Maurer and freshman Kaidon Salter, who we haven’t seen because he has been serving a suspension all spring. There’s also the reported addition of Michigan’s Joe Milton, who attended the Orange & White game and is listed as being admitted to UT for the fall 2021 semester.
If you want to make a rash, uneducated assumption as to what Heupel is thinking (and who doesn’t!), Maurer got the first opportunity in the Orange & White Game. The redshirt sophomore took one shot deep on the opening drive but couldn’t connect with Ramel Keyton. The Vols went 3-and-out.
Hooker got the next opportunity and was shaky, throwing a couple of incompletions, and caused a false start when he called for a snap before the offensive line was set. Tennessee did score on that 9-play, 70-yard drive, but they mostly got the job done on the ground. Freshman Jaylen Wright ran it in from 7 yards out.
Bailey was in for the 3rd possession and showed off the arm. After causing the defense to jump offsides, he had a free play. Bailey aired it out for Jack Jancek, who made the catch and galloped to the end zone for a 73-yard touchdown.
On the next possession, Maurer gunned it 45 yards for a completion to Jalin Hyatt. Later, Bailey connected on a 52-yard pass to Velus Jones, and on the next play those 2 hooked up again for a 20-yard touchdown.
At this point, you wondered if Tennessee fans felt that they were having a fever dream. Far too often under former head coach Jeremy Pruitt and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, the passing game operated behind the sticks.
Not so on Saturday. The ball was flying. The story of that first half was certainly the passing game, with Maurer, Hooker and Bailey combining for 368 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Hooker showed off his agility as he scrambled for a 4-yard touchdown to cap a 75-yard drive. It was the final score of a 1st quarter that was visually pleasing to Tennessee fans, with 31 points scored.
In the second quarter, Maurer and Jancek connected for another deep ball, this time 63 yards down to the 5-yard line. Maurer’s arm strength has never been in question. His ability to remain healthy has been the issue. If Maurer can stay upright, he can be a contributor. On the next play, Maurer threw a short TD pass to tight end Hunter Salmon.
Hooker made a mistake that won’t help his cause to get the opening start. Under pressure from the defensive line, Hooker threw late to the sideline, where Warren Burrell made a quick break on the football. Burrell picked it off and ran 34 yards to the end zone for a pick-6.
The 2nd half featured a running clock, fewer snaps and not as many opportunities for big plays. It also gave us a quick look at redshirt sophomore Spencer Smith. Still, Tennessee’s offense looked a lot like it was advertised to be, with the willingness to take chances downfield.
Does Bailey have the edge heading into the summer? He was 12-of-15 for 260 yards and 2 touchdowns. Maurer had his moments, going 9-of-15 for 171 yards and a touchdown. Hooker was 10-of-14 for 111 yards and a touchdown. He added a rushing TD. His stats looked better thanks to a final drive in which they threw the ball a bunch. Cedric Tillman made a terrific diving catch off a Hooker throw for a 29-yard score.
Only once in the past 4 years has Tennessee had a starter for the entire season. That happened in 2018 with Guarantano. So whoever gets the call initially probably won’t run the table. So those 3 guys (and maybe Salter … and maybe Milton) will need to be prepared and ready to go.
The good news, even in a spring game setting, it appeared Tennessee has good options