Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton stands out in so many ways.
At 6-foot-5 and 242 pounds, Milton is flexible enough to do a backflip from a standing position and has a right arm so powerful he can stand on the goal line and throw an orange into the wall at the other end of a football field.
Nobody has ever questioned Milton’s athleticism.
Now 23 and the oldest quarterback in the room at Tennessee, the sixth-year player gets his opportunity. Milton will get the chance to showcase how much he’s grown and how at ease he is with shorter passes so he can keep coach Josh Heupel‘s super-charged offense on the field.
Heupel believes Milton is ready to play at an elite level in 2023, replacing former roommate Hendon Hooker, the man who took Milton’s job in 2021 after his own lower leg injury.
“I’ve been really proud of the way that Joe has worked here,” Heupel said. “He’s hyper-competitive and intentional in trying to become the best that he can be at his craft and at the same time, push and pull his teammates to compete at a championship level every day.”
Milton showed what he could do after Hooker tore his left ACL in a loss at South Carolina in November. He helped the Vols finish the season by routing Clemson in the Orange Bowl and ending up ranked sixth nationally after an 11-2 record – Tennessee’s best since 2001.
In his two seasons after transferring as a graduate from Michigan, Milton is 85 of 144 for 1,346 yards, 12 touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s played in 31 games over the past five years with only nine starts.
Yet Milton insists he’s ready to be Tennessee’s starter as the Volunteers wrap up spring practice Saturday with the annual Orange & White game.
“There’s a lot more things that I see now that I didn’t see when I first got here,” Milton said. “So I’m obligated to move faster. You know, I see things different. I can also talk to the receivers and let them know what I see now. So I get to play more smooth, more calm and, you know, just be me.”
Tennessee needs that from Milton to build on the 18-8 record of Heupel’s first two seasons. With Hooker preparing for the upcoming NFL draft, freshman Nico Iamaleava is the likely backup when the season starts Sept. 2 in Nashville, Tennessee, against Virginia.
Iamaleava was the No. 2 quarterback nationally in the 247Sports composite rankings for the 2023 class. After that, the depth chart includes Gaston Moore, who followed Heupel from Central Florida, and preferred walk-on Navy Shuler, son of former Vols great Heath Shuler.
Milton is using the similar friendly and helpful competition he enjoyed with Hooker to help Iamaleava learn as quickly as possible. The 6-6 freshman took part in the Vols’ pre-bowl practices and started classes in January so he could do the spring practice.
Milton’s biggest advice? Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
“Nico comes to me every night, right after meetings he asks me questions about the script,” Milton said. “I’m willing to help anyway I can. That’s just me personally. For any freshman in the country, it doesn’t have to be just for Tennessee, go make a mistake. You never know what’s going to happen.”
How the Volunteers fare will depend on Milton fulfilling the promise that he had coming out of Pahokee, Florida – and the biggest key will be harnessing that mighty right arm to throw out routes and screen passes. Despite his limited play last season, Milton still tied for 14th nationally by completing six passes of 50 yards or longer.
New offensive coordinator Joey Halzle said Milton knows he’s competing against himself and is motivated to make the most of his final year of eligibility. Halzle also believes Milton has has room for growth after essentially having only four starts in the nation’s fastest-operating and top-producing offense.
They work regularly on underneath and mid-range throws.
“He’s got a bazooka,” Halzle said. “He can throw it through a wall if he wants to. So, let’s just touch all of these up when we’re in routes-on-air. What I always say, we work on that during our individual and routes-on-air, but when it’s time to take the field, you have to see it and react.”