We need to have a talk about Joe Milton III.

Tennessee’s season is winding to a close. There’s still a lot left for the Vols to prove, and a lot of history to be made in doing so. The Vols are on a collision course with an 11-1 regular-season finish in Josh Heupel’s 2nd season as head coach. Tennessee fans could not have asked for a better or quicker rebuild.

Hendon Hooker has had a major hand in leading Tennessee to this point, as well as Heupel and athletic director Danny White. Hooker has led a top-2 offense in college football to wins over the top 2 teams in the SEC West, LSU and Alabama. He has also spearheaded good wins against Florida and Pitt and kept the tradition of burying SEC East teams such as Kentucky and Mizzou, with South Carolina and Vanderbilt almost sure to follow. The only team that has bested Hooker and the Vols is defending national champion Georgia, which looks to be well on its way toward repeating. There’s no shame in that.

It makes you wonder about a Year 3 under Heupel, if Year 2 can look this stout. Sure, this is Hooker’s last season in a Tennessee uniform, with top receivers Cedric Tillman and most likely Jalin Hyatt off to the NFL. But college football is a quarterback-driven game, and the Vols are all set in that department heading into next season.

I’ll get ahead of this right here and now: It is far from time to crown Milton as a 2023 Heisman candidate for his 25 attempts in garbage time of 4 games this season. But a few things from those appearances should excite Vols fans.

Milton has always been a bit of an enigma. The former 4-star Michigan transfer has a howitzer attached to his right shoulder, and his athletic ability has never, ever been in question. His touch as a quarterback? That’s a different story.

Any Tennessee fan knows of the short-lived starting saga of Milton from last season. He impressed Heupel in preseason camp, earned the starting nod against Bowling Green and Pitt, missed some long bombs in both and exited at halftime vs. Pitt with an injury. That’s around when Hooker decided to go nuclear, winning Milton’s starting job.

The misnomer about Milton’s 1st season in orange and white is that he was bad, some even labelling him a hopeless case. That’s a lazy and simplistic take. Milton was an average passer within 20 yards and a good runner, and he was taking in a completely new system that relied on running tempo. He did a lot of things well and other things not so well, but his ultimate undoing was the deep ball. And you have to connect on the deep ball.

Tennessee receivers were getting perfect separation, and Milton would launch the ball 20 yards over their heads. That’s not an exaggeration. If he were not hurt against Pitt, he would have been benched soon enough for that reason alone.

And for a while, those overthrows defined him. Some think they still define him. They haven’t really been paying attention.

Here’s Milton about 4 months after announcing his intent to transfer to Tennessee in 2021.

And here’s Milton a year and 2 months later after observing and learning under Heupel and quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle.

A flat-footed dime from the right hash of the Tennessee 35 to the left pylon. Had Squirrel White played it a touch better, that’s a 70-yard Point A to Point B missile for 6, give or take a few yards.

That was Milton’s 5th end-of-game touchdown on the season in 25 passing attempts. In said attempts, he’s 19-for-25 for 465 yards, 5 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. In 3 years at Michigan, Milton threw for 5 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.

The opponents and situations are important context, I grant. His efficacy as a true starting quarterback cannot be judged by a few out-of-this-world throws against FCS teams and Mizzou in the final minutes of a blowout. But the stats are not what is most impressive here. It’s the fact that he is effortlessly dropping 70-yard dimes for touchdowns seemingly every time he sees the field. There are only a handful of players in the college game with that kind of arm talent.

Here’s another instance from earlier in the season to back up that claim. You want to talk about touch? This ball could not have been thrown any better.

It’s hard to assume how good Milton can be in a true starting role. But it is not crazy to say his ceiling is higher than any quarterback Tennessee has seen since Peyton Manning (though perhaps Tyler Bray could have a word to say about that).

Milton has shown he is loyal to the cause and to getting better. It would have been so easy for him to transfer to a small school like Akron or UT Martin and continue his career as a starter with the same overthrow problem he had when he arrived at Tennessee. Instead, he stuck it out, has learned and developed under Heupel and is primed for a starting position next season. Don’t forget, he still has another offseason to develop his game even more.

So no, we’re not crowning Joe Milton III quite yet. But that doesn’t mean Tennessee fans should not be excited for what is to come under center next season.

His time to lead the band is coming.