Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton’s performance in the Orange Bowl was almost as important as the final score of the primetime game.
Win or lose, Milton’s play was set to shape expectations for the entire offseason. He is the heir apparent to Hendon Hooker. After a 31-14 win against Clemson on Friday evening, Tennessee’s fans don’t have any more answers than they did before seeing Milton’s first errant pass in 2021.
Television announcers reminded us ad nauseum that Milton has a strong arm and accuracy issues. Tennessee’s public relations department did the same when they released a video of Milton hitting a pole with an orange from 100 yards away. We’ll never know if that was the first fruit toss of the day, but I’m willing to bet there was a bag on hand.
Here’s what we’ve learned about Milton since he replaced Hooker, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against South Carolina as the Vols’ season came crashing down. In starts against Vanderbilt and Clemson, Milton has managed those games well and taken what was available to him. Maybe it’s time to forget about that Ole Miss gaff.
Against Clemson, the Vols faced a zone defense that was determined not to get beat deep. Milton consistently completed short and intermediate passes. His deep passes were far from perfect, but maybe the Vols can win with a less aggressive downfield passing game next season. I doubt that. It was actually a deep ball that was well thrown by Milton in the fourth quarter that helped the Vols secure the game. That’s the difference in this offense and so many others.
Clemson’s defensive approach was the exact opposite game plan that Milton will see next season. Why let him complete underneath passes to talented receivers that could turn a short pass into a long gain? Why not challenge him to complete a high percentage of passes downfield like Hooker did? Does anyone think Georgia is going to play soft coverage against Tennessee like Clemson did?
It’s hard to imagine a team coached by Josh Heupel just dinking and dunking its way through the season. In other words, we haven’t leaned much about Milton’s ability to press the gas pedal when opportunities present themselves. Clemson was determined not to get beat deep like so many foes the Vols faced this season.
The whole dinking-and-dunking approach worked at times against Clemson, but that doesn’t seem like a longterm plan. Why? Milton doesn’t have great pocket presence. He cost the Vols at least one sack by holding onto the ball too long. That’s what makes Milton so frustrating. He has all the gifts, but one. His ability to connect on deep passes limits him to being a game manager. That’s like having a Lamborghini with a governor set at 55 miles per hour.
Tennessee’s offense will be stuck in the garage as long as Milton can’t beat teams deep. Heupel’s hands will be tied with Milton unless he doesn’t improve his downfield accuracy in the offseason. The Vols can win eight games like that, but they can’t win 10 or more – and that’s the new standard.
Heupel is often compared to former Tennessee nemesis Steve Spurrier, who practically ran the SEC while at Florida in the 1990’s. The two are offensive savants. However, Heupel needs to be more like former UT offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe in this upcoming offseason. Cutcliffe coached up quarterbacks like Peyton Manning from a fundamental level. Heupel needs to break Milton down and rebuild him in order to truly reach his and the Vols’ potential in 2023.
Milton’s feet look like they’re nailed to the ground. That hurts his accuracy. No matter what weight Milton plays at, he needs to play lighter on his feet. Great quarterbacks are always resetting their feet. Milton does it about once per snap.
A Milton overhaul may sound like a monumental task, but it’s not. Hooker had downfield accuracy issues after securing the job in 2021. An offseason of coaching took care of that. Hooker wasn’t perfect on downfield passes, but he was more than good. If Heupel can get Milton anywhere close to that level, then 10 wins in 2023 is very doable. If not, things could change quickly.
Heupel isn’t going to be happy with dinking and dunking and the Vols probably won’t have a defense good enough to win a handful of low-scoring games. Milton and the Vols can be very good in 2023 with what they showed against Clemson. To be great again, Milton will have to change. The good news is there’s plenty to work with.