football Edit

How Joe Milton won Tennessee's starting quarterback job

When Joe Milton arrived at Tennessee after transferring from Michigan, Vols offensive lineman Cade Mays thought he was a defensive end.

As sophomore receiver Jimmy Calloway summarized to the media during fall camp, Milton is just “different.”

At 6-foot-5, 244-pounds, there’s a multitude of reasons as to why the Pahokee, Florida native is viewed as the Paul Bunyan of Tennessee football heading into Josh Heupel’s debut season on Rocky Top.

So, how did Milton beat out sophomore Harrison Bailey and Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker for the starting job? Seniors Matthew Butler and Jerome Carvin summarized it perfectly when meeting with the media on Monday after Heupel announced that Milton had won the job.

Butler was asked whether there was a moment during camp in which he knew Milton had won the job. The defensive lineman said there wasn’t, but that's a good thing.

“It’s a good thing that I don’t say that because he’s consistent,” Butler explained. “He was consistent and consistently getting better the whole time, so I think that’s a good thing. But you can see traits from the get-go.”

“He’s been consistent,” Carvin added. “He’s been stacking days. He’s been doing a great job. I’m very excited to see him play.”

What about from a coaches standpoint? How exactly did Milton secure their trust? Well, he checked off the three main boxes that Heupel, offensive coordinator Alex Golesh and quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle look for in their quarterback.

When Golesh met with the media early in camp, he elaborated on the importance of consistency and efficiency. When Halzle spoke, he spoke about extending plays with their legs and the ability to push the ball down field vertically. All three coaches harped on the importance to process things quickly due to the tempo in which the offense operates at.

Milton checked all of those boxes and did so rather early in camp despite enrolling at Tennessee following spring practice. In fact, Milton had been running the first team offense in practice up to 10 days before he officially won the job. He earned those first team reps after standing out in UT’s second scrimmage of camp.

“I don’t think it was just one thing,” Heupel told the media on Monday when explaining how Milton won the job. “At the end of the day, it felt like Joe, his grasp of the offense in a short amount of time, his growth during the middle portion of training camp, his acceleration in what we’re doing, some physical attributes, decision making, led us to put the ball in his hands here, this first ball game.”

Milton enters his first season on Rocky Top following a frustrating redshirt-sophomore season at Michigan. He played in six games in the COVID-shortened season and started five of those contests, completing just 56.7% of his passes for 1,077 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions.

There’s no doubting Milton’s physical skillset. He can throw it up to 80-yards in the air as he has one of the strongest arms to ever set foot in Tennessee’s locker room. That’s just one area of his game, however, and coming off of an up-and-down season in Ann Arbor, there was plenty to work on this offseason.

“He was highly recruited coming out because he does have a huge physical talent pool,” Halzle said. “He has it. And it’s been mostly just refining some things with his feet. We’re different from a lot of people, from the last place he came from. More of the under center, traditional drop-back stuff from how we play. So it’s been less about completely breaking him down.

“It’s been more fine-tuning him to how we operate and how we play. That’s been his process and to his credit, he hasn’t fought that one step. He’s like I’m in here, I want to be in, I want to do it how you guys want it. And he’s bought it and gone with it.”

Milton will get his first opportunity to show that his time at Michigan was a fluke when Tennessee takes the field on Thursday night against Bowling Green. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.

“Joe has done a tremendous job from the moment he got here,” Heupel said on Vol Calls Monday night. “Has a great understanding of what we're doing. His physical gifts are unique and he has great command of what we're doing.

“(Joe) brings a great energy to our football team. That has shown up in scrimmages and during practice. Our guys believe in Joe.”