Quotes: Tight-Knit QB Room Continuing to Improve and Provide Leadership

Quotes: Tight-Knit QB Room Continuing to Improve and Provide Leadership

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee enters the 2022 season with a luxury that not many teams in today’s college football have, two veteran quarterbacks with significant starting experience at the Power 5 level.

Despite competing with each other on a daily basis, Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton III have built a close bond that is helping take the offense to another level this season.

“It is probably something that is going to be rapidly disappearing, to have a backup quarterback with experience,” quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle said after Tuesday’s practice. “I think that speaks to the relationship that he (Milton) and Hendon have and also the way he feels about this place. He wasn’t in a hurry to jump up and leave as soon as Hendon had the type of year that he did. That has been awesome that he has been like that and that we have that type of guy in our room right now.”

The relationship between Hooker and Milton has also rubbed off on freshman Tayven Jackson, who gets to sit back and learn from the veteran duo every day in meetings and practices.

“Joe and Hendon have a real relationship, not just on the field but off it,” Halzle said. “They have become really, really close friends. They compete with each other every day and growing up you always want to beat your best friend, but it is always in a positive light.

“That positivity and that positive energy has really translated into our quarterback room and Tayven has walked right into that. It has been a good environment for him.”

Halzle also highlighted the improvements that both of his veteran signal callers have made during the offseason to become more complete players.

With a full season in Josh Heupel‘s fast-paced offense under his belt and a complete command of the system, Hooker has been able to spend more time working on the little intricacies of the position such as moving defenders with his eyes and playing games with opposing defenses to keep them off balance.

“He did it in the spring at a high level, and he actually did one really good one today,” Halzle said in regard to Hooker’s ability to manipulate the defense. “It has been really fun to watch his improvement and to watch him enjoy doing it, where it’s not like work every time… It’s been really fun to watch his improvement there.” 

For Milton, working on his touch and fitting balls into specific windows was a major point of emphasis this offseason.

“We’ve worked all offseason on touch throws across the middle and pressing our vertical run game. He has done a great job doing that,” Halzle said. “He is touching up balls all over the field. We all know he has the absolute howitzer of an arm, so we have worked on having him touch up the ball, work windows and working that aspect of his game.”
 

Young, Talented Running Backs Hoping to Make Immediate Impact

With the unfortunate news that redshirt sophomore running back Len’Neth Whitehead will miss entire season with an injury, the need for Tennessee’s young and talented running backs to provide depth has become even more important.

Justin Williams-Thomas and Dylan Sampson will be two newcomers looked upon to carry some of the load as they enter their freshman seasons with the Vols. Williams-Thomas is a bigger back that should be able to provide some thump to UT’s backfield while Sampson brings elite speed with him to Rocky Top and is already proving to be one of the fastest players on the team.

With a spring and summer already under his belt after enrolling early, Williams-Thomas said he doesn’t consider himself a freshman anymore despite taking part in his first preseason camp.

“The tempo of the game definitely has slowed down for me a lot,” Williams-Thomas said. “Just being able to come through spring, I felt like that was a big help for me. Just being able to see it and then do it, and then get the chance to do it again. Just slow down, just constantly doing it and then doing it over just really helped me.”

While Sampson didn’t join the team until this summer, he feels like his hard work and preparation have allowed him to already feel comfortable in Tennessee’s up-tempo offense.

“The coaches do a good job in the summer of slowing things down and making sure we understand,” Sampson said. “I think what helped me out a lot was meeting and getting extra time in the playbook. Me and Justin (Williams-Thomas) did that a whole lot. Anytime we could, we dove into the playbook so we would know what we were doing during the summer. It’s been an adjustment, but it’s been rolling.”

The Vols will be in shoulder pads for the first time this preseason as camp rolls on Wednesday morning with practice No. 3 at Haslam Field.

Transcript | Aug. 2, 2022 

Quarterbacks Coach Joey Halzle 

On the relationship between Joe Milton III and Hendon Hooker… 
“It’s been great. Joe and Hendon have a real relationship, not just on the field but off it. They have become really, really close friends. They compete with each other every day. Growing up, you always want to beat your best friend, but it’s always in a positive light. That positivity and that positive energy has really just translated into our QB room. Tayven (Jackson) has walked right into that. It’s been a good environment for him.” 

On what improvements he has seen from Joe Milton III since last year… 
“We’ve worked all offseason on touch throws across the middle and pressing our vertical run game. He has done a great job doing that. He is touching up balls all over the field. We all know he has the absolute howitzer of an arm, so we have worked on having him touch up the ball, work windows and working that aspect of his game. We know he has the other shot in his bag already.” 

On what progress he has seen quarterback Hendon Hooker make this offseason manipulating the defense… 
“It has been really fun actually. He did it in the spring at a high level, and he actually did one really good one today. I’m not going to talk about it, but it was actually pretty impressive. He turned around, smiled at me and then kept going. It has been really fun to watch his improvement and to watch him enjoy doing it, where it’s not like work every time. He’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got this.’ It’s been really fun to watch his improvement there.” 

On how he teaches a quarterback with a strong arm to make touch throws and how valuable it is to have an experienced backup quarterback in Milton… 
“To start off with your second question, absolutely it is. It’s probably something that’s going to be rapidly disappearing, to have a backup quarterback with experience. I think that speaks to the relationship that he and Hendon have, and also the way he feels about this place. He wasn’t in a hurry to jump up and leave as soon as Hendon had the type of year that he did. That’s been awesome that he’s been like that and that we have that type of guy in our room right now. To your first question about the touch throws, one, it’s having that conversation with him, that we all understand you have this talent. Now, we need to truly work on something that’s not a positive. A lot of people like to work on what they’re good at, because it feels good when you’re working on it. We said, ‘Let’s miss some throws in the spring. Let’s miss some throws on routes on air, working on our touch.’ He has absolutely dialed that in. It’s been a huge part of his game. We have been working drills. We have several drills we work to shop windows and touch-up balls and all that type of stuff. He has really dug into that. He hasn’t fought it whatsoever. It’s going to be a huge improvement to his game.”

On his first impression of Hooker once he arrived in Knoxville… 
“When we first got here, I watched every clip that every quarterback that was on campus had from game film. Hendon was clearly very talented. I was excited for the opportunity to work with him. With what everybody said about him, he was a great guy. Starting to work with him when we first got here in February, March and then into spring ball, Hendon was a guy who was way too far in the business model, meaning that nothing was fun. Everything was serious. That wasn’t his best way to play. For some guys it is. It is not for him. We had to spend a long time working on having him really just enjoy the game while working hard. Working hard doesn’t mean serious all of the time, though. He is fun. He is enjoying himself and enjoying his time out on the field. That is what has allowed his talent to now take over again. He’s not tightening himself up with his own mind.”

On how much Tayven Jackson benefits from watching Hooker and Milton… 
“That is huge for a young quarterback, because he has two guys above him that are not just in the building doing what they need to do every day, but guys who have also played. They can talk to, ‘This is what it’s like on gameday. This is how you have to prepare.’ That’s so uncommon, and that’s a huge benefit that he is getting coming in. He can just sit and listen to these guys talk, get stuff from them, and they are both very positive with him. They’re not beating him down. They kind of rib at him sometimes like you would with a little brother, but it’s all positive. It speaks, again, to the culture that we not only have in this building, but specifically in that room.”

On if there were times last season where Hooker was too protective of the ball… 
“Maybe early, but as the season went on, no. He was just extremely intelligent with the football. He made good decisions. I said it the first day that I ever came out here. I don’t want a guy that comes out and plays carefully. If you’re going to play in this offense for us, you’re going to rip the football every single time you get an opportunity—not stupidly, not recklessly, but extremely aggressive. Hendon does a beautiful job of walking the aggressive-to-reckless line, but always with intelligence on it.” 

On the uniqueness of Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton III’s relationship… 
“Kind of two answers. One, it’s extremely rare to have that kind of dynamic. But two, it really speaks to what Coach Heupel has built here culture-wise. I know I’ve said that a couple times in here already, but it’s the truth that these guys all understand that we’re all trying to get something bigger, and everyone has a role. Right now, you think you know what your role is, but you have no idea after that first snap what everybody on this football team’s role is going to be. Everyone’s just working the same way and working in a really positive way.” 

On what allowed him to notice that Hendon Hooker’s play improved when he was having fun, as opposed to having a business-minded approach… 
“Because he was exclusively business-minded when we got here. Everything about him was tight … This is an extremely talented athlete that’s not showcasing any of his athleticism. We had to just bend that mind a little bit and work on his mind every single day to, ‘Yes. This is football, this is fun. You have to be serious, but you have to do it in a fun way.’ (Having fun) doesn’t mean not paying attention. It doesn’t mean being completely goofy out there on the field, and not having a mindset that we have something to go do. But there’s a way to do it in which you can still enjoy the game that you’re playing. When he started doing that, he started loosening up, and that’s when you saw the growth in Hendon last year. I noticed that being serious every single moment of his life didn’t work for him. I watched him when he was messing around playing basketball. He’d get a big smile on his face, and nobody could guard him. I told him last year in the summer, ‘I want you to play football like you play basketball.’ Because when he plays basketball, he knows he’s the best player on the court.”

On how different his approach is after having a season at Tennessee under his belt… 
“It’s very different. Whenever you have an established quarterback in fall camp, it’s a huge advantage that you’re not also working a quarterback competition, meaning everyone’s switching off reps all the time. And then having Hendon (Hooker) completely bought in to what we’re doing, both football-wise and how we’ve dealt with his mind, it’s just all like you said. Now we can work on the fun part, like we talked about earlier. Like, this is how we’re going to manipulate guys, this is how we’re going to play games with the defense. And we can start growing what we’re doing as well. He can now handle it all, and he takes it all in with a smile on his face. He goes and competes at a high level. It’s been a huge difference for him.” 

On what challenge he has for Tayven Jackson as he progresses through his first fall camp… 
“For Tayven, he’s obviously an elite athlete. It’s just fun to watch him do athletic things every day. Some things that you wouldn’t normally coach, he can do it and you’re like, ‘oh wow, that’s pretty cool.’ It’s really for any young quarterback, the biggest thing—and I had a conversation on the field with the guys today—is just being able to reset. You make a bad play, you’re going to. It’s expected. You’re a true freshman. You miss a read, you miss a protection, you miss something like that, awesome. Reset and go play the next play. That’s the biggest thing with a young quarterback. You have to make sure that they’re not living in the past all the time, because they’re used to being the one that is the big dog.” 

On what was the point of emphasis for Tayven Jackson after going through spring practice… 
“Two things with him. One, was his going from, ‘OK, I’m learning and I’m watching the teaching tape and all the intro stuff,’ to really diving into the tape, ‘Alright, this is really like the intricacies of what we’re doing. This is how to really play in it.’ As opposed to just, ‘This is what the play is.’ That was the biggest challenge we had for him, was make sure you can come out on August 1 and operate like an upperclassman. That’s what the challenge was for him. We’ve seen that growth from spring. Obviously, he’s still young and he’s still got areas that he needs to grow in, but he’s doing more and more of the, ‘alright, I’m going to see it. I’m going to cut it loose. I’m going to go play fast.’ That’s been the biggest thing for him.” 

Freshman RB Justin Williams-Thomas

On if college game is slowing down…
“The tempo of the game definitely has slowed down for me a lot. Just being able to come through spring, I felt like that was a big help for me. Just being able to see it and then do it, and then get the chance to do it again. Just slow down, just constantly doing it and then doing it over just really helped me. So, I feel like the game will slow down for me a lot.”
 
On biggest thing he worked on during the summer…
“Just mastering my playbook, knowing my footwork and just being able to be sharp on my pass protection. I feel like those were the biggest things I needed to work on. Just being able to know everything like the back of my hand.”
 
On biggest jump he made during offseason work…
“I’d say the biggest thing that helped me that I did this summer was definitely catching balls. I feel like that was an area of my game that I needed to improve. I feel like you should be able to catch the ball as running back not just run the ball. So, I feel like getting on the jugs a lot definitely helped me.”

Freshman RB Dylan Sampson

On a sense of urgency for him to be ready due to injuries in the running back room…
“I wouldn’t say a greater sense of urgency, but I would say it’s more likely to be a reality that I will step on the field earlier. I’m thinking the same mindset that I came to be ready to play at all times. I’m trying to stay calm and collected, learn the offense and be as sharp as I can be to be prepared for any moment.”
 
On adjustments he has made since coming to UT…
“I think Just processing everything quickly. You know, the coaches do a good job in the summer of slowing things down and making sure we understand. I think what helped me out a lot was meeting and getting extra time in the playbook. Me and Justin (Williams-Thomas) did that a whole lot. Anytime we could, we dove into the playbook so we would know what we were doing, during the summer. It’s been an adjustment, but it’s been rolling.”
 
On if he’s always had a good work ethic…
“Yeah, I feel like I always have (had one) ever since I was little. I’m just trying to be the best that I can be. (Justin Williams-Thomas) also helps that because me and him over the summer got work in together. He helped me when I first got in to learn the offense quickly. We help each other now. We correct each other. It’s all love between us. I feel like we are a good duo in this system.”

Freshman WR Squirrel White

On what the biggest adjustment has been transitioning from the summer to fall…
“Just trying to maintain my weight and get bigger, stronger and faster.”
 
On his ability to get off the line of scrimmage and beat a defensive back…
“I think that is my biggest asset, just beating DB’s deep and even short. Just going in there and dominating them.”
 
On the backstory behind his nickname “Squirrel” …
“My great-grandma named me that when I was a baby when she was holding me. So, there was a squirrel in her garden and it picked her tomatoes. When the squirrel moved, I moved at the same time, so she just started calling me that.”
 
On how he would describe wide receivers coach Kelsey Pope
“My coach Kelsey Pope is amazing to me. He guides me. He gets on me. He’s just a great mentor, a great coach and somebody you can talk to off the field and on the field.”

On what the biggest adjustment has been transitioning from the summer to fall…
“Just trying to maintain my weight and get bigger, stronger and faster.”

Freshman OL Masai Reddick

On his first two practices…
“Honestly, it’s been everything I’ve wanted, everything. First two days, you know, transitioning from high school is a big difference. The speed of everything, getting used to the playbook, as well, but also adding physicality. These first two days for me personally, I’m pumped man. I’m excited every day I go to sleep and I’m happy every time I wake up in the morning. I just don’t show it that much. I’m really excited.”
 
On the adjustment practicing at right guard…
“I’m used to playing guard. I’ve played that since high school. I played that my first couple of years of high school, so it’s nothing really different. Talking with the coaches, it looks like I’ll be staying at right guard, as of right now. I’ll get some reps at left from time to time but still going back-and-forth getting work on the left and right side just in case I need to fill in whatever I need to fill in.”
 
On the tempo of the offense…
“It’s been exactly what Coach Josh Heupel said it was. It’s always high-tempo. We try to get as many plays out as fast as possible. We try to perform to the best of our ability every single play and have 110 percent effort every single play. The transition from high school, you know, everybody can play fast tempo, but effort is not a big thing when it comes to tempo in most cases. Here, it’s every single play, every single snap. So, that’s the biggest thing.”

-UT Athletics

Vols QB Coach Joey Halzle and QB Tayven Jackson / Credit: UT Athletics

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