It’s come full circle. Last year, Joe Milton III was named the starter at the beginning of the season for Tennessee football. However, he struggled severely with accuracy, got hurt and lost his job to Hendon Hooker.
We know what happened next. Hooker embarked on a legendary career, arguably the most impressive 22-game run in school history. Now, though, Hooker’s final season has been cut short right at the end due to injury.
Milton, who was Josh Heupel’s first choice to start in 2021, is now tasked with closing out the season for Tennessee football at the Vanderbilt Commodores and in the bowl game. The question now is about how much he has improved.
“I think he’s a lot more comfortable in what we’re doing, so in the run game, and just in his decision-making process, eyes – all of it – he’s a lot further ahead than where we saw him at the beginning of last season,” Heupel said of Milton’s development in his Monday press conference. “The guys around him have changed, too. I anticipate him playing at a really high level.”
In 2021, Milton completed 32 of 62 passes (51.6 percent) for 375 yards (6 yards per attempt), two touchdowns and no interceptions. He ran it 28 times for 129 yards and two touchdowns.
Aside from his accuracy issues, decision-making also became a huge red-flag when he came in for an injured Hooker against the Ole Miss Rebels. With no time on the clock and one last chance, Milton scrambled and ran out of bounds.
However, Milton showed a lot of maturity choosing to stay and learn behind Hooker even after losing his starting job. Heupel acknowledged how rare that is.
“I think it speaks to the culture in the building, the culture inside of the quarterback room, his understanding of how he can grow as a player,” he said. “At the end of the day, the biggest competition you have is with yourself, to continue to develop and become the player that you’re capable of. He’s approached it the right way, but I think it’s a great lesson for a lot of guys throughout college football.”
So far, the move seems to have paid off. Albeit in mop-up duty, his numbers have improved dramatically to completing 23 of 33 passes (69.7 percent) for 573 yards (17.4 yards per attempt) and six touchdowns while rushing seven times for 72 yards.
At the South Carolina Gamecocks, accuracy issues still persisted, but he still has a beautiful deep ball and threw a nice touchdown pass to Cedric Tillman. Milton also still hasn’t thrown an interception at UT.
“He’s got really good command of what we’re doing,” Heupel said. “We don’t change what we do. He’ll be ready to go in this one.”
For Milton, this is a head start on next year’s quarterback competition too. Tayven Jackson and incoming recruit Nico Iamaleava will both be in on that race.
Although Milton is the most experienced, Jackson draws a lot of praise for his accuracy, and Iamaleava is the most highly touted recruit. As a result, there is pressure to perform. Heupel said Milton has been consistent in his preparation as a backup all year.
“You continue to invest,” he said. “The guys that put the most into it inevitably get it rewarded back to them. You don’t know when. You don’t know how. He’ll be prepared in a great way for this one.”
Like Hooker, though, Jackson is hurt, which means Tennessee football is a lot thinner at quarterback. Milton is one of only two scholarship players currently at the position.
That would seem to lead to the coaches wanting to be careful with Milton when he’s in the game. However, Heupel noted that it won’t change what they do with him, and he is 6’5″ 244 pounds, so he should be able to withstand some hits.
“Gaston (Moore) and Navy (Shuler) are two guys that have been in our system for a while, Gaston, in particular,” Heupel said. “With Joe, we’ve got to go play, got to find a way to win this game, so we’ll use him as needed in the run game, too.”