What did Joe Milton's Tennessee debut tell us? He's got a long, long way to go
I wanted to see it once. I’m sure I wasn’t alone.
Tennessee fans were waiting patiently to watch Joe Milton drop back and effortlessly uncork a 65-yard bomb into the waiting arms of a Vols receiver. That was the hope and expectation when Milton was named the first starting quarterback of the Josh Heupel era.
It took 54 minutes and 49 seconds, but it finally happened. Sort of.
With 5 minutes left in a 25-point game, Milton got all day to throw, and he stepped to his right so that he could deliver a laser from midfield to Cedric Tillman, who went up and made a play in the back of the end zone for the touchdown. It was Milton’s first touchdown pass at Tennessee. It was also Milton’s first and only completion of the second half after his first 7 passes of the latter 2 quarters fell incomplete.
And that, in many ways, told the story of Milton’s Tennessee debut.
Of course, a 38-6 victory is nothing to scoff at. The Vols hit 38 points once last year. And Milton, who transferred to Tennessee over the summer after losing his starting job at Michigan in the midst of his 5th game last year, was clearly fired up to be back in the saddle. That’s all well and good.
But first game or not, Milton has to be better if he’s going to lead the Vols to the offensive places they want to go in Year 1 with this new regime. It’s as simple as that.
Tennessee won’t be good enough defensively for Milton to go 25 minutes without a completion in the second half. Heupel won’t be able to turn into a one-dimensional team against SEC competition (Jabari Small made that cut off tackle for an 8-yard gain on basically every other play). That’s what the Vols were able to do against a Bowling Green team that ranked No. 127 out of 128 FBS teams in scoring defense in an 0-5 season last year.
Milton showed exactly why there’s excitement and skepticism about his short- and long-term future.
Are the tools there? Absolutely.
Not only does he have a cannon for an arm, but he’s a load to bring down at 240 pounds. He can flick defenders off him unlike any Vols quarterback in recent memory. That’s what he did when he hit pay dirt for his second score of the night:
— Reece Van Haaften (@Reece_VH) September 3, 2021
Call me crazy, but something tells me SEC edge defenders like Will Anderson or Zachary Carter might put up a better fight than that.
Are Milton’s legs an asset that’ll come in handy when protections break down? Definitely, but he doesn’t have breakaway speed, and there’s a ceiling to his scrambling ability if he struggles to process.
Fortunately for Milton, he’s asked to process defenses differently in Heupel’s offense than he was in Jim Harbaugh’s offense at Michigan. Gone are the 3- or 4-progression reads post-snap.
With Heupel, it’s tempo, it’s 1-2 reads and if nothing is there, make a play with your legs. Countless times, Milton snapped the ball with 30-plus seconds left on the play clock. When he’s able to get high-percentage throws like he did on those first 2 scripted drives, it looks good. It looks like everything Tennessee fans have been hoping for. Milton can push the ball to anywhere on the field. Nobody will ever question that.
What is worth questioning is if a summer enrollee is going to develop quickly enough to get on the same page as his receivers. Heupel didn’t really dial up a ton of deep looks on Thursday, but when Milton did try to stretch the field vertically, he overthrew his target by at least 5 yards.
It’s true that he could’ve been a bit juiced up in what was his first college start in front of an actual crowd. It’s also true that he could still have major accuracy issues that’ll hold him back from leading a high-powered offense all season.
I mean, he started 9-for-11 on the first 3 drives, and completed just 2 of his last 12 passes, one of which was the aforementioned jump ball Hail Mary. Against Bowling Green. That was with all day to throw. Something tells me Pat Narduzzi and that Pitt defense will bring just a touch more heat next week when the Panthers come to Knoxville.
Milton has to continue to progress if he’s going to continue to get the keys to Heupel’s high-powered offense. The deep-ball accuracy has to improve because sure, the arm is there, but only 1 of his 141 pass attempts at Michigan went for a completion of 40-plus yards. What good is his cannon for an arm if he can’t hit a receiver with 2 steps of separation?
Inconsistent debut aside, Heupel’s offense has potential to be prolific. And fun. Neither of which described what the previous regime ran, but even in a limited sample size on those first 2 touchdown drives, we saw that identity shift.
You see what Jalin Hyatt can do with his speed. You see the trust in Tillman to go up and make a play. Even when the home run play isn’t there, you see the quick scoring drives.
But if this thing is going to really turn a new leaf in Year 1 with Heupel, it starts with Milton.
Thursday was in some ways, exactly the start he could’ve hoped for — a quick lead, a few touchdowns and a comfortable win. In other ways, it was exactly the start Milton probably wanted to avoid. That is, the inconsistency and the inefficiency that led to him losing his job at Michigan.
For now, the job is still Milton’s at Tennessee’s.
He’ll have to be better than he was on Thursday if he wants to keep it that way.