Quotes: Vols Confident in Milton to Lead Resurgent Effort at Vanderbilt

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The energy was high during Tuesday morning’s practice at Haslam Field as Tennessee looks to rebound from a disappointing loss at South Carolina last weekend when it travels west for an in-state showdown against Vanderbilt on Saturday night in Nashville.
 
Much of the talk on Tuesday was centered around starting quarterback Joe Milton III and how the offense will look under the Vols’ new signal caller following Saturday’s season-ending injury to Hendon Hooker.

According to Milton’s teammates and coaches, having one of the most talented and experienced backup quarterbacks in the country will pay major dividends on Saturday and moving into the postseason.
 
“We have all the confidence in the world in Joe Milton,” junior running back Jabari Small said after Tuesday’s practice. “I was talking to one of the trainers yesterday, last week in practice when Hendon was in, Joe would be right behind me while I’m in the huddle. He (was) preparing like he was QB1 throughout the whole year, so he is definitely prepared for this opportunity. It was just time, he was going to get his chance. Hate (that) it had to be under these circumstances, but he is more than ready.” 
 
Starting center Cooper Mays, who works hand-in-hand with the quarterbacks every day, echoed those thoughts as well.
 
“He’s extremely ready,” Mays said when asked about Milton. “I think you all have kind of seen that with a lot of the work that he’s put forward this year. He’s played in a good bit of games and when he’s come in, I think he’s done a really good job every time.
 
“Just the growth that I’ve seen from him this whole last year, growing and learning under Hendo, coach Heupel and coach Halzle, I think everybody has a lot of faith in him.”
 
Despite the disappointing outing in Columbia, there is no lack of motivation this week with the possibility of recording the program’s first 10-win regular season since 2003 and a potential New year’s Six bowl game at stake.
 
“We still have a lot to play for. That is definitely a goal of ours (playing in a NY6 bowl game), and getting 10 wins, which is something that has not been done (at UT) in a long time,” Small said.
 
The Vols finish out the regular season on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network with Tom Hart (PxP), Jordan Rodgers (analyst) and Cole Cubelic (sideline analyst) on the call.
 
Full transcripts from Tuesday’s media availabilities can be found below.
 

Junior RB Jabari Small 

On potentially earning a  New Year’s Six bowl bid… 
“Coach Heupel stated it in the team meeting on Sunday. We still have a lot to play for. That is definitely a goal of ours, and getting 10 wins, which is something that has not been done in a long time. We have a lot to play for, and those are some bowl games that we are very excited about getting the opportunity to play in.” 
 
On how the loss impacted the team… 
“It hit us pretty hard. The way that it happened probably hurt a little more. Obviously, losing Hendon, we were pretty emotional, but he is in good spirits, he was in good spirits today which kind of gave us a little kick at practice. But it hurts.” 
 
On how the energy and team’s response… 
“It was a really good practice with Joe Milton III out there, full of energy. [We] had a real good practice from the whole offense [and] the whole defense. You have to wash last weekend away. That is the only way you can get better and focus on Vandy, because they are a problem of their own. They are playing high, they are playing for a bowl game, they are going to play hard. So, it is time to just focus on Vandy, and I thought today, we responded well.” 
 
On the team’s confidence in Joe Milton III 
“We have all the confidence in the world in Joe Milton III. I was talking to one of the trainers yesterday, last week in practice when Hendon was in, Joe would be right behind me while I’m in the huddle. He (was) preparing like he was QB1 throughout the whole year, so he is definitely prepared for this opportunity. It was just time, he was going to get his chance. Hate (that) it had to be under these circumstances, but he is more than ready.” 
 
On Vanderbilt’s defense… 
“They fly around to the ball, very physical. They have some talented players, so it is going to be a good test for us.” 
 
On avoiding a mindset change among the team… 
“I think it is going to be tough, but that is what championship teams do. Each player finds a different role, you might have a different role now than you had at the beginning of the season, somebody might go down, or you may lose a little confidence from losing, but it is all about how you figure it out and how you respond to adversity. So, I have full faith in these guys, these coaches, and the staff. I think we will respond in the right direction.” 
 
On Hendon Hooker’s attitude post-injury… 
“For me, I was real emotional, so I could barely look at him sometimes on Saturday. But to see him smiling, that just made me happy. He is a warrior. We know the type of person Hendon is. He may be an even better person off the field than he is on the field, so I was just happy to see him happy and in good spirits. He was also leading today at practice. The utmost respect for him and everything he has done for me, the team and this program.”  
 
On the impact Hooker has had on this program…  
“Monumental. He has done a lot in a short span while he has been here, in the way he touches people off the field, in the way he moves and his actions. He is always a caring person. When he has had success, he has handled it very well. You know his story, where he came from, how much he had to sacrifice, and how many ups and downs he had to go through. I go to him for advice all the time.” 
 
On what he is thankful for…  
“Definitely my family. I miss my family. They made me who I am today. Definitely thankful for my teammates. I go grind with those guys every day. And my coaches, they give us the best opportunity every Saturday to go win. The people I am around every day, I am thankful for them. They make it a healthy environment every day for us to come to the facility and be our best.” 
 
On the camaraderie between the offense and defense…  
“I think it is good. We are one team. Offense, defense, yeah we play different positions and different sides of the ball, but we are just Tennessee, honestly. We kind of sense when somebody needs to pick up the slack, if that is the case. But for the most part, we know we got to play as one and try to be dominant each and every time we are on the field, whether it be offense or defense.” 
 
On his touchdown run last weekend…  
“We were going off-tempo, so they really weren’t set, I don’t think. I was just trying to make a play and try to make people miss.” 
 
On making sure the whole team is focused in the same direction…  
“I think that is the most important thing, just making sure the locker room is good, making sure we all know how to respond from it, because everything is not going to go well. You are going to hit adversity, but that is what defines a person, a man, a team: how you respond from adversity. Everything is not always going to be well, so I think the leaders may have to step up. Hendon is gone, not playing on the field with us, he is still there, but other people are going to have to raise their level of play and execution.” 
 

Junior OL Cooper Mays

On how ready Joe Milton III is for his opportunity…
“He’s extremely ready. I think you all have kind of seen that with a lot of the work that he’s put forward this year. He’s played in a good bit of games and when he’s come in, I think he’s done a really good job every time. Obviously, it’s probably a little bit different when you come in the game and most of the games we’ve been playing in, he’s had a pretty good lead and everything. Just the growth that I’ve seen from him this whole last year, growing and learning under Hendo (Hendon Hooker), coach (Josh) Heupel and coach (Joey) Halzle, I think everybody has a lot of faith in him.”
 
On his reaction to Hendon Hooker’s injury Saturday at South Carolina…
“It really hurt my soul, honestly. You can kind of see me, when the ball was getting returned back, I probably took a step or two, but my mind just shifted toward Hendon when I saw him go down. Seeing him in pain like that and knowing the circumstances, it hurt really bad.”
 
On current team chemistry and if there were challenges in that area last week…
“I wouldn’t say it was an issue. I don’t think so. I don’t think it was an issue last week. I don’t think it’s an issue this week. I think they just came out and played better ball than us on that night. It showed in the score. I can’t say it’s about team chemistry. I think it was just them playing better than us.”
 
On how much the culture that the team has built needs to rise up this week…
“We have to make sure we come out and play better this week. I think a lot of stuff is still ahead of us. We have a lot good things going. It’s been a long year, but I think it’s been a pretty good year in comparison to what we have done recently. I think there’s still a lot of stuff to play for and we just have to rally together a little bit and have a sense of pride about us.”
 
On if the offensive line group has to step up this Saturday…
“I think we have to go into every game thinking like that, that it’s got to be our best game. Everybody in the whole picture has to step up. We have to be better. I think anything that the offensive line can do to help Joe and make him feel more comfortable, we have to do that.”
 
On what he has seen from Vanderbilt on film…
“They play really hard. They believe they can win. Any week in the SEC is not a given week. They’re just going out there, playing what they’re coached to do and playing it hard. It’s come together for them these last two weeks.”
 
On what he’s thankful for…
“Family. Family as in friends, my blood relatives, little brother, big brother, mom, dad and everybody involved. I’m just thankful for everybody around me.”
 
On if it is hard to regroup as a team following Saturday’s loss…
“I wouldn’t say so. I think every week in the SEC, you have to look forward to the next game, whether you win or you lose. It’s just a next game up mentality and this is the next game on the schedule. We have to be better and just be looking forward to it.”
 
On if Tennessee can still play as the nation’s No. 1 offense with Joe Milton III at the helm…
“I don’t think there will be any change. We’re going to go out there and we’re going to play as hard as we can. We have a great game plan and I think Joe will run with that. I think you all have seen what Joe has done. I don’t think we’re going to play any differently.”
 
On what Joe Milton’s personality is like…
“He’s very jovial. He’s a guy that’s always going to have a lot of juice and good energy. He’s grown a lot as a leader and developed a lot as a person. I think he has a very consistent attitude and he’s got a lot of juice. He’s always going to have everybody’s back in the locker room and is always going to be the same person every day.”
 
On a ‘wow’ moment with Milton’s arm strength…
“I don’t know which throw it was. I think it was maybe versus Missouri. On one of the passes that he had, it seemed like he was stepping back with pressure in his face and threw it 65 yards. It’s pretty unreal. You don’t see a lot of quarterbacks throw it 65 yards in the air with a crow hop like a baseball player. He can just flick his wrist and it’s going about 65 or 70. He does that stuff every day in warmups. It’s not really a surprise, but just seeing it every day is like, ‘wow, that’s unreal.'”
 

Senior DL/LB Byron Young 

On what led to the loss at South Carolina… 
“I just felt like we didn’t execute the calls the right way and do our assignments. We felt like we had the best call for (their plays), but we just didn’t execute. We didn’t make it happen. That’s what happened.” 
 
On how the defense can bounce back defensively after their performance… 
“We are just going to have to do it. It’s something that we just have to put behind us. That’s the mentality that we have right now. Next game, we have to put that behind us and focus on Vanderbilt coming up. It’s a big rivalry game, so we have to focus on this game and keep the needle going up.” 
 
On if the team’s confidence has been impacted at all by the loss… 
“No. We know that a game like that was a tough loss, and it just motivates us to do better the next game.” 
 
On Vanderbilt’s offense… 
“They run the ball really well with their quarterback and running backs. The read option, we have to play that well. Their offense is pretty powerful. We have to play our keys right and get the job done.” 
 
On if the team’s mindset caused breakdowns in execution against South Carolina… 
“I don’t know. We had a great week of practice. I feel like going into the game, everybody wasn’t locked in how we thought we were. That’s what happened. We thought we were ready, but we weren’t, and that showed. We just have to bounce back from it and put it behind us.” 
 
On how a bad team performance motivates them to improve… 
“We still have a lot to prove and a lot to gain from this year. It’s still a great year. Despite everything that happened, we still have the needle going up, still have a chance to win 10 games. That hasn’t happened in a while. There’s still a lot of things we can do and accomplish.” 
 
On if the team overlooked South Carolina… 
“No. I felt like the preparation was right, but going into the game, we didn’t execute the calls. I felt like that was what hurt us the most.” 
 
On being able to move on while also remembering what happened to avoid it happening again… 
“Just preparation. You have to study better, study harder. Go back in the film, keep watching, see what we did wrong, or we are going to make those mistakes next game. I feel like to not make those mistakes, just study. Preparation, practicing hard, not playing in the meeting room, everything. Just being locked in. I feel like that will help us next game.” 
 
On Hendon Hooker’s injury… 
“That was the worst part of the game, to be honest. Hendon Hooker is like a brother to me. We came in at the same time. We always talk. This year we got closer, with me and him leaving and stuff like that. I hate to see that. He’s the hardest working guy on our team. Everything he’s been through, transferring from Virginia Tech, having the best year of his life and that happens. You never want to see that happen to any player. Hendon, he’s a soldier. He’s going to fight back. He’s been through worse, so I believe in him, pray for him. I feel like he’s going to bounce back well.” 
 
On how challenging it has been for teams to try and get to the edge and how the defense can improve in that aspect… 
“You have to fix our eyes. The main part is focusing on what’s in front of you. The tackle goes down, you have to change your eyes. You have to learn how to do that. You can’t just focus on one guy the whole time. Your assignment is going to switch during the play, so if you just stuck with that one guy the whole time, a guy is going to sneak out. So, you can’t do that. You just have to fix your eyes and play your keys.” 
 
On what he’s thankful for… 
“I’m thankful for my teammates. Just everything I’ve been through and everything we’ve been through, I feel like that’s what’s holding us together. All of us, we got each other. Outside noise, they can say what they want, but at the end of the day we’re here together. That’s what I’m thankful for.” 
 
On what’s most impressive about Joe Milton III’s athleticism in practice… 
“He’s fast, quick. I’ve practiced with him for about two years now, and it’s always a great challenge. How fast he runs, he loves to tuck it and run. That’s what I like about him. The quarterbacks we go against, mobile quarterbacks just like him and Hendon (Hooker). Just going against him and his aggression for the game, I love it. Making each other better.” 
 
On challenges of defending a mobile quarterback… 
“Like I said before, fixing our eyes. Surfing, like I said when a tackle goes down, contain the edge, don’t let him break out, don’t let him sneak through the middle. If you don’t surf, he could easily sneak through the middle. Just playing our keys, knowing our assignment and just doing what we do.” 

-UT Athletics

Vols QB Joe Milton / Credit: UT Athletics

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