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A Lot of Scoring and Sunshine: Tennessee’s Quarterback Competition Remains “Wide Open” After Orange and White Game

Rain, rain, go away. Tennessee’s quarterbacks have to sling the football today.

As the rain finally slowed in Knoxville and the first Tennessee Orange & White game in the Josh Heupel era began, the fans inside Neyland Stadium and watching around the world immediately began to see a glimpse of what Heupel promised he would bring to Rocky Top… a high-powered offense.

Unfortunately for Tennessee, the success of the offense came at the hands of their own defense. But that’s what the spring game is for; learning opportunities in a game-like atmosphere.

The biggest talking point surrounding the conclusion of the Orange and White game was the same one that has been exhausted throughout spring practice. Although now, with potentially a little more excitement depending on how one might look at things.

All three of Tennessee’s quarterbacks had a chance to shine as the Orange team defeated the White team by a score of 42 to 37.

But really, don’t think too much about the scoring. It didn’t make much sense, anyways. In fact, redshirt sophomore Brian Maurer even played for both teams to balance out Tennessee’s quarterback rotation.

Speaking of those quarterbacks, Heupel was quick to put to bed any rumors of a starting quarterback, or even a front runner.

“The quarterback competition is wide open,” Heupel said following the spring game.

The scoreboard says there was a winner a loser, and the players may or may not feel that way as well. But for the coaches, the spring game should be considered a success. Each position coach saw their position both succeed and fail, although some more than others.

The Tennessee Quarterbacks Electrify Neyland Stadium

Now, let’s talk about those quarterbacks.

Going into spring practice the number in the room comfortably sat around four. There we’re four main quarterbacks believed to be in contention for the starting role. Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, redshirt sophomores Brian Maurer and Harrison Bailey, and incoming freshman Kaidon Salter. 

That room quickly wound down to three though after the suspension of Salter, but even was teased that it could move back up to four or even five. Joe Milton, a transfer quarterback from Michigan, reportedly could be on his way to Tennessee next season.

But through all the ups and downs during practice, all three quarterbacks hit the field on Saturday afternoon and gave the coaches something to think about over the summer.

“I saw each quarterback out there having fun,” said wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. following Tennessee’s Orange and White game. “We all love each other and are trying to get better each day.”

Maurer was the first of the quarterbacks on the field, which was a tad surprising given his role during the preceding practices. Normally the second quarterback to each drill reportedly, Maurer still had himself quite the day. He finished with 171 yards while completing nine of his 16 attempts. He had one touchdown and threw no interceptions.

Hooker was the next quarterback to take the field. He also had a nice day, as he finished with 111 yards, a 29-yard passing touchdown, a four-yard rushing touchdown, and an interception. His rushing touchdown was particularly done well, as he only ran after reading the defense to find no good options.

But it was Harrison Bailey, after often being the last quarterback mentioned of the three, that would make sure his name was going to make the headlines first.

Bailey finished with a game-high 260 yards and two touchdowns after completing 12 of his 15 attempts. The quarterback put the first touchdown on the board after completing a 73-yard catch and run with WR Jack Jancek. Then, just a drive later, Bailey would orchestrate the offense and find wide-receiver Velus Jones Jr. for the 20-yard score.

If there is one thing to be certain of after the Tennessee Orange and White game, it’s that each one of the quarterbacks looked like they had something to offer. Bailey certainly was the standout on the day, which is quite interesting as he has often been looked at as the odd-man-out in the room.

Bailey made sure that no one could take his name out of any competition. But then again, so did the other two quarterbacks. It’s always going to be a little awkward at the end of the spring game. Did Tennessee’s offense just naturally embarrass the defense? Did Tennessee’s defense elevate Tennessee’s offense to a different rung on the ladder?

It’s still hard to say, even though the defense didn’t look too hot. But there is one unmistakable takeaway from the offense, no matter who the quarterback is.

Orange and White Game Proves a Different Offense Is Here

Tennessee’s offensive game plan has been wildly reimagined for the better.

One of the most noticeable changes right away was the offense’s consistent desire to move the ball downfield. Not just downfield, but in chunk plays as well. Routinely Tennessee would test the defense by taking long shots down the field. And to the surprise of many, it worked.

Tennessee completed nine throws of 20 yards or more, which also resulted in two touchdowns.

Without knowing the exact numbers, last year’s archaic offense felt like they completed nine throws of 20 yards or more the whole season.

Say what you will about what quarterback was most impressive. Or maybe which one gives Tennessee the best chance to win. Those are all fine conversations, but what stands out most from the Orange and White game was Tennessee’s offensive playbook.

On a number of plays, including throws by both Bailey and Maurer in the first quarter, receivers caught the ball without any defender even close to them. 

Although, it is two sides to the same coin. Yes, it is exciting that Tennessee now has an offense that when schemed right, can actually get people open and in space. But at the same time, it was the Vols’ own defense that was oftentimes getting punked.

Great Offense & Bad Defense: Two Sides of the Same Spring-Game Coin

For as much of a well-oiled machine as the Tennessee offense looked on Saturday, Tennessee’s defense did not.

It’s always a little hard to judge things in a spring football game, and Tennessee’s Orange and White game on Saturday was no different.

Because as easy as it is to celebrate 10 touchdowns in 19 drives and a 100 percent success rate in the red zone, all of that success came at the expense of the Tennessee defense.

It wasn’t all about talent, skill, or scheme though. For Tennessee, it was just mainly about who they could get on the field for the defense. Roman Harrison, Greg Emerson, Elijah Simmons, Byron Young, and Latrell Bumphus were all notably absent from the game, among others.

The defensive line and linebacker core were noticeably thin today, and for who was there, was noticeably weak. The running backs, who haven’t even really been mentioned, had an explosive day on the ground and accounted for six touchdowns and almost 250 rushing yards.

As for the linebackers, the group became even smaller after Morven Joseph was helped off the field due to an injury. And, not helping matters, Deneiko Slaughter had to be removed from the game after a targeting penalty in the second half.

Josh Heupel talked about the depth struggles after the game, and he also did not have any further updates on the status of the suspended players.

“I feel like we’re developing depth along the offensive line,” said coach Heupel. “We need depth on the defensive line.”

There is a lot of work on the defensive side of the ball to be done before now and the season. And frankly, the coaches have any number of spots to start with. 

Orange and White Game Provides Needed Opportunities on the Field

The quarterbacks weren’t the only ones who had themselves a day for the offense, as their work couldn’t have been done without the skill players around them first.

The Vols rushed for 248 yards on Saturday, and again added in six scores on the ground.

Jabari Small finished with two scores and 48 yards in the game. Although it would be Fred Orr who really had himself a day. Orr finished with 83 rushing yards and averaged 10.8 yards per carry.

The Vols had a number of players who had the chance to run with the ball, including Dee Beckwith, Jaylen Wright, and all three of the quarterbacks.

Jack Jancek led the wide receiver group on the day with 137 yards on two carries, which is just about the most unbelievable stat from the entire game. Who knew Jancek had so much juice to his game?!

Jalin Hyatt, Velus Jones Jr., Cedric Tillman, Princeton Fant, and Ramel Keyton all found ways to include themselves in the passing game. Tennessee’s Orange and White game really was a reminder of how much pure receiving talent this Tennessee team boasts, and should be put into good use next season.

What’s Next?

Ultimately, the Tennessee spring game will be better analyzed as a benchmark when the season actually starts. But with nothing else to base opinions on, there are certainly plenty of takeaways from this first game in this era. At least, taking things with a spring-game-sized grain of salt.

Firstly, the offense is completely reenergized and should be able to put up points on scheme alone against select SEC and non-conference foes next season.

Secondly, the quarterbacks showed they have plenty of talent in the room as it is. And, they could still be getting more, with Milton expected to announce sometime during the weekend of the Orange and White game. But who will be the one to establish themselves as the top guy? And could Tennessee run a multi-quarterback system next year? Those are questions left to be answered.

But lastly, what was more real? Did Tennessee’s offense just overpower the defense? Did the Tennessee defense make the offense look like unjustified world-beaters?

We don’t know yet, and we may not know for a while. But in the meantime, we can sure speculate the heck out of this 2021 Tennessee Orange and White game.

All Images Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics Communications.

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