Tennessee's hopes ride on old QB who waited his turn

By: Bob Holt Bob Holt's Twitter account
Published: Saturday, July 29, 2023
Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III (7) runs as Clemson linebacker Wade Woodaz (17) attempts a tackle during the first half of the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 30, 2022, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III (7) runs as Clemson linebacker Wade Woodaz (17) attempts a tackle during the first half of the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 30, 2022, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Joe Milton transferred from Michigan in 2021 to be the starting quarterback at Tennessee, but he held that spot for just two games.

After Milton was sidelined by a leg injury against Pittsburgh, Hendon Hooker replaced him and made 22 consecutive starts.

With Hooker remaining the starter last season, it figured Milton would be on the move again. Considering the transfer portal options, what quarterback sticks around to be a backup and wait for another chance to start?

Milton, as it turned out.

With Hooker moving on to the NFL as a third-round draft pick by the Detroit Lions, Milton is again Tennessee’s starting quarterback as a sixth-year senior.

“The one thing that built my respect for Joe the most was the fact that he stayed, man,” Tennessee senior tight end Jacob Warren said at SEC Media Days. “Everyone could understand why he would leave, want to go play, because he’s obviously a great talent.

“But the fact that he stayed, learned from Hendon and also helped Hendon out in a lot of different areas of the game, has truly shown me he’s committed to this place. He’s committed to be great here.”

Milton has been productive the previous two seasons despite making only four starts in that span. He also played off the bench late in 13 games.

In 17 games at Tennessee, Milton has passed for 1,346 yards and 12 touchdowns without an interception.

When Hooker suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 11th game last season against South Carolina, Milton started in Tennessee’s victories over Vanderbilt (56-0) and Clemson (31-14) in the Orange Bowl.

Milton completed 19 of 28 passes for 251 and 3 touchdowns in the Orange Bowl to earn MVP honors.

“For Joe, I think it solidified all the work that he put in, that he would go out and perform and play,” Tennessee Coach Josh Heupel said. “It was proving himself right as much as anything. It wasn’t about proving anybody wrong. It was about proving himself right.

“It was great for him and the guys around him to see that hard work does pay off and take advantage of your opportunities and be prepared when it comes.”

Milton said it took him into his second season at Tennessee to get comfortable in Heupel’s offense.

“Probably the third game of last season,” Milton said. “You play a whole lot different when you’re comfortable, as you can see.

“Hendon got comfortable in the offense and you saw what happened.

“As you get comfortable, things just open up for you. Things open up for the other guys as well.”

Now that Milton is entrenched as the starter, he said he’s ready to take his play to another level.

“I’m just ready to show off my game, period,” Milton said. “It means a lot to me to show off to myself. I mean, nothing else matters. Once you make yourself happy, I feel like you’ll be good to go.”

Milton, 6-5 and 242 pounds, was asked multiple times about his arm strength. One video posted on social media showed him throwing a pass more than 70 yards during a workout.

“I actually don’t know the furthest I can throw the ball,” Milton said. “I kind of just let it go. It’s a mindset thing.

“As a quarterback, once you feel like somebody’s too far [for a completion], then they’re going to be too far from you, right? I kind of just let it go no matter where they’re at.”

Milton showed off his arm strength at this year’s Manning Passing Academy, where the quarterback attendees included LSU’s Jayden Daniels and Mississippi State’s Will Rogers.

“His arm strength is ridiculous,” Daniels said. “That’s what stands out the most. How much zip he has on the ball and his velocity.

“I respect his game and I can’t wait to see what he does this year.”

Rogers also had high praise for Milton.

“He’s got the strongest arm in the world,” Rogers said. “I think pro or college, it doesn’t matter. He’s got the strongest arm I’ve ever seen.

“A really good dude, too. I got to talk to him a good bit. I hope he succeeds this year.”

Warren said Milton has matured in his time at Tennessee.

“You see a lot more confidence in Joe,” Warren said. “True confidence in himself.

“Just kind of how he carries himself, how he interacts with other people.”

Milton’s decision to stay at Tennessee means the Vols can realistically look to build on last season’s 11-2 record.

“I think one of the great stories in college football in the era of the transfer portal is Joe’s ability to recognize areas that he can continue to grow in and trust the people around him,” Heupel said. “Understand that within our scheme, he’s going to have an opportunity to do everything he wants to, which is be one of the best players in college football.

“Through that process over the last 18 to 24 months, he’s continued to grow in his comfort of who he is, what he’s about and how he wants to attack and approach every single day.

“How he wants to grow as a football player, meaning fundamentally at the quarterback position, along with understanding offensive and defensive schemes so that he can put his eyes in the right spot.”

Tennessee At a Glance

LAST SEASON 11-2, 6-2 (2nd in SEC East)

COACH Josh Heupel (18-8 in two seasons at Tennessee, 46-16 in four seasons overall)

RETURNING STARTERS 14: Offense 7, Defense 7

KEY PLAYERS QB Joe Milton, WR Bru McCoy, RB Jaylen Wright, C Cooper Mays, DT Omari Thomas, LB Aaron Beasley, FS Jalen McCollough

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Joey Halzle (1st year)


OUTLOOK Georgia is the two-time defending national champion, but Tennessee looks ready to challenge the Bulldogs for the division title with 14 starters back from last season’s team that won the Orange Bowl and sixth-year senior Joe Milton ready to take over at quarterback. Getting Georgia at home in Neyland Stadium for a late-season showdown is a major plus for the Vols.

2023 Tennessee Football Schedule

Sept. 2 vs. Virginia#

Sept. 9 Austin Peay

Sept. 16 at Florida*

Sept. 23 Texas-San Antonio

Sept. 30 South Carolina*

Oct. 14 Texas A&M*

Oct. 21 at Alabama*

Oct. 28 at Kentucky*

Nov. 4 Connecticut

Nov. 11 at Missouri*

Nov. 18 Georgia*

Nov. 25 Vanderbilt*

*SEC game

#Game in Nashville, Tenn., at Nissan Stadium


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