The Offensive Explosion Continues

UT Vols Football 2022 Season | Photo by Bruce McCamish

Led by rocket-armed Joe Milton III, the Volunteers will keep up the tempo. 

The Vols’ capped their 10-2 return to glory in 2022 by lighting up the scoreboard in a 31-14 win over No. 7-ranked Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Linebacker Aaron Beasley swooped across the field like an Avengers character, making 12 tackles, four of them in the backfield, including two quarterback sacks. Joe Milton III hit 19 of 28 passes for 251 yards with no interceptions and touchdown passes to Bru McCoy, Squirrel White, and Ramel Keyton. With the return of Milton, those receivers, and tight end Jacob Warren, plus Oregon transfer Dont’e Thornton, coach Josh Heupel’s up-tempo offense will pick up right where last year’s offense—No. 1 in the country with 46.1 points and 525 yards per game—left off.

Joey Halzle, 37, who could pass for a third Affleck brother, moved up from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator after Alex Golesh became head coach at South Florida. No worries, though. Halzle has been in the Heupel system for 15 years, as a backup QB at Oklahoma and an assistant coach. He is one of what Hendon Hooker called his “football scientists” who convene each week to come up with innovative offensive ideas.

UT Vols Football | Photo by Bruce McCamish

“Anybody can be explosive in this offense,” says McCoy, who memorably rose up between two defenders to make a miracle catch in the last seconds against Alabama and set up the winning field goal. After McCoy makes a catch, says Halzle, “he runs the ball like he’s a linebacker.” At UT Media Day, McCoy said he is much improved from his first season with the Vols after his transfer from Southern Cal. “It’s playing techniques,” he explained, “the little things in the game within the game: the receiver-cornerback head games, how important it is to prepare and have a good understanding of the offense. When you know what you’re doing, you can really make things happen.”

White bonded with Milton when he arrived before his freshman year. “In spring ball, we just clicked,” he said at Media Day. “We’re Mike and Pippen. We get together off the field. We do jet skis. I can’t swim, so I have to wear a life jacket.” Their bond was evident as they connected on long bombs of 64 (v. UT-Martin), 58 (v. Missouri), 64 (v. South Carolina), and 50 yards against Clemson.

“That one was just sailing so high in the air,” said White of the 64-yarder against Martin. “It just stayed up there, but I got it.” With his 23.4 mph speed, he is probably the fastest person on the team, though he admitted running backs Jaylen Wright and Dylan Sampson are close. “We need to race someday,” he said with a chuckle. As to why he’s called Squirrel and not Marquarius, he explained,
“My great grandmother named me that. There was a squirrel in our garden that picked our tomatoes, and when the squirrel would move, I would move at the same time.”

Ramel Keyton made miracle catches at key moments last year and punctuated the season with a 46-yard TD catch against Clemson. “He is an elite deep ball threat,” said Halzle. “He can track a deep ball. He’s got deceptively long speed because of his long strides.” He is also known for doing extra workouts catching balls from the Jugs machine.

Warren, a 6’6”, 253-pound Farragut High grad, decided to return for his last season of eligibility. He’s teaching the tight end ropes to talented freshman Emmanuel Okoye from Anambra, Nigeria.

Thornton, a graduate from Oregon, is 6’5”, 214 pounds. “He’s a freaky talent,” Halzle said, “A guy with that size who can run like that. And he’s trying to learn the way we do it.”

The passes get the headlines, but part of the Heupel special sauce is enabling the quarterback to adapt to defenses over-protecting against the pass. In the tying drive against Alabama, Hendon Hooker handed off eight times to Wright and Sampson before a 13-yard TD pass made it 49-49. Running back Jabari Small got a few breakaway runs, including a 49-yarder at LSU, and many of his 13 rushing touchdowns that way.

As it was last year, center Cooper Mays determines how quickly the Vols line up for the next snap. “The faster the better,” said Mays with a confident smile at Media Day. “We love that fast tempo.” Left tackle John Campbell Jr. transferred to UT from Miami because of an important Knoxville resource. “They got Waffle House,” he said in a press conference. “That’s the place I like. At the U (Miami), there wasn’t really no Waffle House. It was like 40 minutes away.” Needless to say, Campbell likes his defensive linemen smothered and covered. Texas transfer Andrej Karic at left guard, Javontez Spraggins at right guard, and Jeremiah Crawford or Gerald Mincey at right tackle round out a solid, experienced line.

2023 Cityview Magazine, Inc. UT Vols Football | Photo by Bruce McCamish

Joe Milton III may have the strongest arm in college football. “A 40-yard pass is a flick of the wrist,” said Peyton Manning, who saw Milton throw an 80-yard TD pass as a counselor at the Mannings’ quarterbacks camp. As most Vol fans remember, Milton transferred from Michigan and won the starting job in 2021, but had a problem with overthrowing his receivers and yielded the starting job to Hooker. Rather than stomping off in a huff, Milton became best friends with Hooker and set about learning the intricacies of the Heupel system. His coaches made a technical adjustment to his stance and his use of his lower body on his throws. “His accuracy has gone through the roof,” said Halzle. “His touch has improved. He’s fundamentally changed his delivery, using his lower body.” From 243 last spring, he is at 235. “I feel lighter. Five pounds is a major difference in the way I make my moves.” This is evident in short reels when Milton effortlessly does a standing backflip.

Halzle compliments his attention to detail: “If he’s knowing the why of things we’re doing in certain situations like, ‘Why is this coming up instead of this,’ it helps him understand, ‘Where do I want to get with this ball? Where do my eyes start?’ In the run game, he can tell you all the calls that the O line’s making right now, which helps him. He has a huge understanding of that now. It’s extremely detailed, which allows him to just go play free, just let his talent take over.”

UT Vols Football | Photo by Carlos Reveiz

Milton is also mentoring UT’s five-star freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava. When 6’5” Milton first stood next to 6’6” Iamaleava, he said, “I thought at first, he’s a little bit taller than me. That’s a first for a quarterback. Then I put on shoes, and we’re the same height.”

Milton said he told Iamaleava he can ask him whatever he wants, “in football and life – nothing is off the table. You can ask about my failures, you can ask about my success, it doesn’t matter. No question is dumb and I’m willing to help you, because everybody’s going to face adversity, you just never know when. But when you do face it, you got to know how to overcome it.”

“It’s almost like a big brother-little brother relationship for the two of them,” Halzle said. “You rarely see Joe without Nico.” Of Iamaleava, Halzle said, “That guy is mature beyond his years. With his calmness on the field, we’ve got a ton of confidence in that guy.”

The defense, in its third season under coordinator Tim Banks, was a work in progress in 2022. Beasley and five starters welcomed graduate-transfer linebacker Keenan Pili from BYU. “A tremendous family man [spouse’s name: Lindsey], big, athletic, physical,” said Banks. “Everyone respects him because of his work ethic.”

UT Vols Football | Photo by Carlos Reveiz

Over the past two seasons, defensive tackle Omari “Big O” Thomas has swatted away eight passes. One he nearly intercepted. “Yeah, I want to get one of those,” he said, grinning, at UT Media Day. “It feels kinda natural,” he explained. “I have good eye-hand coordination. But the trick is you don’t jump. You stay on your feet so the quarterback does not pump-fake you out. I count the seconds that he has the ball, because usually they keep it a set number of seconds, so I know when to get ready.” Prediction: Thomas will swat one, grab it for a pick, and roll in for a TD.

By necessity of injury and inexperience, Banks fielded cornerbacks and safeties by committee in 2022. He now has a larger, more experienced group to pick from. “All those guys are healthy and very talented. We’re looking for overall consistency and confidence.”

Cornerback Dee Williams was a secret weapon on returns, debuting with a 58-yard punt return against LSU and averaging 18.7 yards on punt returns and 17.0 on kickoff returns. Named a fourth-team All-America as a returner, he is a secret no more.

The season will turn on four games: September 16 at Florida, a September 30 revenge match at home against South Carolina, October 21 in Tuscaloosa against a No. 3-ranked Bama team with a score to settle, and finally big, bad No. 1-ranked reigning national champion Georgia in Neyland Stadium on November 18. The Bulldogs are tough, but look for an epic upset.   

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.