Joe Milton tries to replicate the journey Hendon Hooker made for Tennessee

Tennessee football players

Joe Milton and Hendon Hooker did not inhabit identical situations as college quarterbacks, but the similarities are stronger than the differences.

Matt Zemek, 14Powers.com

Hooker played at Virginia Tech, a good program but nowhere near the tradition-soaked pressure cooker Michigan football is. Hooker played for Justin Fuente, a talented quarterback developer but someone who never came remotely close to accomplishing what Jim Harbaugh has as a football coach.

Hooker’s journey at Virginia Tech under Fuente is, on a number of levels, not remotely comparable to Joe Milton’s life at Michigan under Harbaugh. Those are very different worlds and sets of circumstances.

Yet, as disparate as those realities might be, they are still united by the common human experience of failure.

Were Hooker’s failures at Virginia Tech mostly about him? No they weren’t. Fuente failed to build a program and an offense worthy of Hooker’s skills. Virginia Tech floundered under Fuente, which led to the head coach’s termination. Harbaugh has, in marked contrast, led Michigan to the College Football Playoff, the Big Ten championship, and back-to-back wins over rival Ohio State. Harbaugh and Fuente both struggled for several seasons, but only one of the two men figured it out. The fact that Harbaugh did figure it out without Joe Milton could reflect poorly on Milton, but Harbaugh was stumbling through the darkness for a period of time at Michigan. He didn’t have everything in alignment in Ann Arbor before he rediscovered the winning formula which had eluded him. Michigan fans, preceding the 2021 season in which Harbaugh took the Wolverines back to the top tier of college football, were very impatient. Given that Harbaugh had been on the job for more than half a decade, that impatience was reasonably arrived at. It certainly wasn’t premature. If Joe Milton failed at Michigan, Harbaugh did too, even though Harbaugh made various course corrections Justin Fuente never did make at Virginia Tech.

As different as Fuente and Harbaugh are as coaches, and as different as Virginia Tech and Michigan are as programs, we are left with the same potent and poignant bottom line when considering Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton: They both showed glimpses of potential. Enough people saw them on enough occasions to know that they possessed considerable talent. They both needed to find the right situation. They both needed to find the right coach who could unlock their talents.

How improbable it would be if the same university and the same coach unlocked both men’s football gifts. Tennessee changed Hendon Hooker’s life and career. Now we get to see if it can change Joe Milton’s football story as well.

One of the many fascinating parts of these interlocking, interwoven stories in Knoxville is that a Milton injury early in the 2021 season enabled Hooker to take the starting QB job. Hooker did so well in 2021 that he was able to keep the starting job into 2022. Then he took off, became a Heisman Trophy contender, and led the Vols to their best season since the Philip Fulmer days more than 15 years ago.

Yet, if a Milton injury opened the door for Hooker, a Hooker injury put the spotlight back on Milton. Hooker got hurt in the loss to South Carolina, enabling Milton to lead the team and the offense in the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt and then in the Orange Bowl versus Clemson. Milton gained the hands-on experience within Josh Heupel’s offense which he needed in order to enter the 2023 season in full command of the offense. Winning the Orange Bowl against Clemson (even though the Tennessee offense did not perform in high gear on that night) gives Milton and the Vols a substantial building block heading into the 2023 season.

Tennessee still hasn’t won an SEC championship since 1998. The Vols still have plenty of unfinished business as a program. However, it had been a very long time since the Vols were a national championship contender, a New Year’s Six (formerly BCS) bowl winner, and a team which won 11 games in a season. Hendon Hooker made Tennessee nationally relevant again, and for that, he will have a special and enduring place in the history of Volunteer football. He was able to do that because of an injury to Joe Milton.

Now, however, Milton gets a chance to build on what Hooker established. He gets a chance to author a story which is very similar to what Hooker created.

A young man who couldn’t make everything work at a Power Five program searched elsewhere for a fresh start as a college quarterback. Hendon Hooker found his happy ending. Joe Milton will pursue that satisfying conclusion this coming season. The fact that Milton had a front-row seat for Hooker’s ascendance has given him a roadmap, a template, a clear understanding of what it looks and feels like for a quarterback to turn previous career frustrations into present-day career fulfillment.

Success doesn’t seem remote or unattainable for Milton, but it was Hooker who brought Tennessee back to prominence in 2022. Milton has to make that same journey. It’s the conceptually simple but situationally challenging task of turning theory and concept into reality. Hooker was able to make that leap from the realm of the possible to the thrilling world of actualized, realized potential. Now it’s Milton’s turn.

Tennessee goes into this 2023 season knowing that Alabama is weaker at quarterback (Tyler Buchner instead of Bryce Young) compared to 2022. The Vols also enter this season knowing that big, bad Georgia – their toughest and most imposing opponent – will be a home game, giving them more of a chance to put up a fight against the two-time defending national champions.

Joe Milton will get chances to make a name for himself, and to forever change the story of Tennessee football. More than that, however, Milton will get a chance to show that as inspiring as Hendon Hooker’s 2022 journey was in Knoxville, that rich satisfaction of overcoming previous failures and finding solutions to career uncertainties is a goal Milton can now claim for himself.

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