While he might not be the first name that comes to everyone’s mind, Vols quarterback Joe Milton III should be looked at as one of the most valuable players on the Tennessee team – and he’s not even the starter.
What Milton provides Tennessee is an experienced, veteran backup quarterback that has size, talent, and knowledge at the position. During Vols’ win over Ball State on Thursday, the second-year Tennessee quarterback completed 8-of-9 passing for 113 yards and a touchdown. Milton connected with junior wide receiver Jimmy Holiday for a crisp 53-yard touchdown score during the second half against Ball State.
“He played extremely well,” Tennessee QB coach Joey Halzle said about Milton’s performance on Tuesday. “Hate to use the word flawless, but he played extremely high level out there. It gave us a bunch of confidence.”
There aren’t a whole lot of college football teams that can boast a starting and backup quarterback with 4 years of power-5 experience each under their belts. And while there were certainly times that Milton had forgettable moments throughout the 2021 season, he also had glimpses that flashed his potential as well.
After a full offseason of putting in the work with the Tennessee program, Milton looked sharp in his first outing of the 2022 season.
“Today, with the transfer portal and all that, it’s hard to have two high-level quarterbacks,” Halzle said. “And Joe [Milton] showed us that we have two very good options at quarterback. We have a ton of confidence playing him.”
Halzle’s words on Tuesday echoed a thought that he made himself over a month ago at the start of training camp.
“Absolutely it is,” Halzle said on Aug. 2 about why it’s so important to have Milton as a backup this year. “It’s probably something that’s going to be rapidly disappearing, to have a backup quarterback with experience. I think that speaks to the relationship that he and Hendon have, and also the way he feels about this place. He wasn’t in a hurry to jump up and leave as soon as Hendon had the type of year that he did. That’s been awesome that he’s been like that and that we have that type of guy in our room right now.”
If there’s anyone that has seen first-hand the importance of having a well-prepared backup, look no further than Joe Milton and the Tennessee team in 2021. After Milton went down with an injury during the Vols’ game against Pittsburgh, he saw how Hendon Hooker was able to step right in without a huge drop-off. If anything, that gave switch gave Tennessee their starting quarterback for the next two seasons.
Now, the Vols head into another game against Pittsburgh, but with the roles reversed this time. Hooker is the starting quarterback with Milton backing him up. But if last year proved anything, it’s how ready that backup needs to be – which starts on the Monday before the game.
“It’s a tough spot to be in because you have to prepare as the starter with a quarter of the reps that the starter is getting, as it should be, he’s the one that’s taking the field, he’s got to get the most,” Halzle said about the backup position for Tennessee. “[Joe Milton] has done a really good job of making sure that he is mentally focused every single time we take the field. When he goes through his calls, he makes every call even when he’s not in the game. So he’s really embraced that – okay, I understand because it happened to him on the other way of how quickly this can switch, so he’s always ready to go.”
Tennessee doesn’t have a quarterback battle on its hands. But what it does have are two experienced quarterbacks that are focused and locked in. Considering only one can be on the field at a time, Milton’s preparation is certainly giving the Vols’ coaching staff a confident feeling about that room.
“That’s why I said on the front end, we feel confident rolling him,” Halzle said about Milton on Tuesday. “We don’t have a separate – okay, if Joe is in it’s this, if Hendon is in it’s this – if for whatever reason he is in there, you’re calling it and you’re rolling. That’s what he has earned in the way that he has prepared.”
No. 24 Tennessee will take on No. 17 Pittsburgh in a ranked matchup this upcoming Saturday afternoon.