They spent all year rallying behind a Heisman Trophy candidate in Hendon Hooker. Now, Tennessee football has to get behind a quarterback who lost his starting job to Hooker last year due to accuracy issues.
Joe Milton III took over for the Vols after Hooker’s season-ending injury against the South Carolina Gamecocks. He led them to a 56-0 win over the Vanderbilt Commodores the next week. Players and coaches remain confident.
“Joe is a great leader, a great quarterback and a brother as well,” tight end Princeton Fant said in Wednesday’s media session. “The confidence level is high. We all trust Joe. We trust the gameplan with Joe. He is going to go out there an compete and give it everything he has.”
Sure, it’s going to be different facing a top 10 Clemson Tigers team in the Orange Bowl. He’ll also have to do it without offensive coordinator Alex Golesh, who is now head coach of the South Florida Bulls.
However, quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle said Milton is focused and hasn’t changed who he is. He also noted that moment won’t be too big for him.
“He’s completely dialed in to what we’re seeing, what we’re expecting and how we’re going to attack it,” Halzle said of Milton. “I’m actually excited to watch him go take the field on Friday night.”
One concerning sign is that the accuracy issues, which cost him his starting job in the first place last year, resurfaced once he got back in with the first team. He missed a couple of shots at South Carolina.
Then, despite a blowout win at Vanderbilt, Milton only completed 11-of-21 passes for 147 yards and just one touchdown. However, Jabari Small said Clemson will be a better environment for him to show what he can do.
“He oozes confidence and it is very contagious, but with every rep you can just see him building, getting more comfortable in the offense, getting his swagger back, so, this game I think he will get a fair shake to display his talent,” Small said. “Vanderbilt, last game, there was a lot of rain so it was a different type of ballgame, but this game I think we can let him loose and let him show his talent.”
In his career with Tennessee football, Milton has completed 66 of 116 passes, or 56.8 percent. However, it’s clear he’s been getting better playing in Josh Heupel’s system.
After all, this year, Milton has completed 34 of 54 passes, or 63 percent of them. Sure, a lot of that was in mop-up duty, but the accuracy had to improve for those numbers to show.
“I feel like from my prep at the beginning of the season to now has been the same,” Milton said. “I haven’t changed one thing. Only thing that has changed is just the reps, the amount of reps I get. I get more reps than I did when I wasn’t starting. That’s pretty much the only thing that changed.”
Also, look beyond that one stat, completion percentage, and Milton’s numbers look a lot better. He has thrown for 1,095 yards, averaging nearly nine and a half yards an attempt.
This year, he threw for 720 yards and is averaging 13.3 yards per attempt. He also has 35 carries for 201 yards and two touchdowns in his career. Javontez Spraggins said nothing changes on the offensive line from Hooker to Milton.
“Both are mentally able to compete, and it’s not any different,” he said. “It’s like, hey, I got to go out there and practice today for this guy because I know that if I do it right, we’ll make the game short and easy.”
Most notably, though, Milton has thrown nine touchdowns and no interceptions since joining Rocky Top. Similar to Hooker, he doesn’t give the ball away.
That will be a lot more difficult against Clemson, though, without Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt. Ramel Keyton noted that the receivers need to do a good job of getting open to deal with their defense.
“I feel like as a unit they play well together,” Keyton said of Clemson. “They’re all on the same page a lot. I feel like their secondary is pretty good, but the d-line helps them out, so we got to get open really fast to help us out.”