Monday, May 27, 2024

What Josh Heupel thought of Tennessee freshman QB Jake Merklinger in his spring debut

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Josh Heupel broke spring practice down into thirds for Tennessee freshman quarterback Jake Merklinger. Fifteen practices in total for the rookie to first get his feet wet, then adjust to Tennessee’s uptempo offense, then make progress before the Orange & White Game to end spring drills.

Merklinger hit his marks along the way.

“Just his growth,” Heupel said Saturday during his press conference the split-squad scrimmage at Neyland Stadium, “fundamentally understanding what we’re doing, defensive structures and being a good decision-maker, just continuing to grow throughout the course of spring ball.”

Jake Merklinger in Orange & White Game: 104 yards passing, 39 yards rushing, 2 touchdowns

Merklinger completed 5 of 6 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown, including a 71-yarder to Chris Brazzell II in the third quarter. Merklinger also ran for a 26-yard touchdown in the second quarter, finishing the day with three rushes for 39 yards. 

“In front of fans and to have an opportunity to play in the stadium,” Heupel said, “I thought did a really nice job.”

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound freshman was a four-star prospect in the 2024 recruiting cycle, ranked as the No. 12 quarterback in the class in the On3 Industry Ranking. He was the No. 23 overall player in the state of Georgia, out of Calvary Day School in Savannah. 

Merklinger was in a three-quarterback rotation during the Orange & White Game, trading series with sophomore starter Nico Iamaleava and redshirt senior backup Gaston Moore.

“I think he played great,” Iamaleava said of Merklinger. “Going into his first spring game, I thought he did a great job on operating the offense, operating our tempo. I thought he did well.”

Josh Heupel: Tennessee QBs operated ‘extremely well’ in Orange & White Game

The pressure is certainly off Merklinger during his upcoming freshman season with the Vols. Iamaleava taking the long-awaited steps into the starting role as the former five-star prospect and No. 1 overall recruit in the country.

Moore, meanwhile, is the backup that followed Heupel and his staff from UCF to Tennessee three years ago. 

Iamaleava on Saturday completed 7 of 9 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown. Moore got more extensive work, going 12-for-18 for 184 yards and two touchdowns. 

“I honestly try to prepare like I’m the starter,” Moore said. “I ask Nico all types of questions and back when Joe (Milton) played I asked him stuff. So just if my name were to ever get called, I’d be prepared.”

Heupel said his new-look quarterback room handled the mechanics and game-like situations in their unofficial debut Saturday “extremely well.” That included Merklinger.

“I thought he handled himself really well,” Heupel said.

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