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Tennessee Football: Plenty of pros and cons in QB Joe Milton’s third debut

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Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton’s highly anticipated debut as a starting quarterback – again – is in the books. Perhaps the third time is the charm? That’s still up for debate, but things are looking pretty good.

Milton led the Vols to a 49-13 win over Virginia on Saturday in a “neutral” site game held in Nashville. The senior completed 21-of-30 passes for 201 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Milton also ran the ball nine times for 33 yards and two touchdowns.

Milton was the man to watch for the thousands of orange-clad fans in the stands. Sure, Milton has started for the Vols before, but that didn’t end well. He eventually lost the starting job due to injury. That had better not happen again. 

With freshman Nico Iamaleava as the only scholarship quarterback on the roster, it would be ideal for Milton to play up to his much-ballyhooed physical ability, which he seemed to be getting tired of talking about before the game during an on-field interview. 

Yes, we all know that the Florida native can throw the ball really, really far. The concerns about Milton are managing an offense and accuracy. He answered some of those concerns, at least to some degree, on Saturday.

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Milton was comfortable and clutch early on in the Vols’ opening drive as he completed a nine-yard, touchdown pass to running back Dylan Sampson on fourth-and-five on the Virginia nine-yard line. Milton was patient when he didn’t see an open receiver in the end zone and deftly decided to go to Sampson on a swing pass that resulted in the game’s first score.

Milton’s accuracy issues downfield later in the quarter weren’t an issue as he threw a perfect pass that would have resulted in an 80-yard touchdown that was dropped by senior Ramel Keyton. On the next play, Milton threw into coverage and nearly had a pass easily intercepted. After that, things continued to look shaky for Milton as he missed multiple receivers that had worked themselves open. 

Milton then steadied himself after that, led the Vols to a 14-0 lead and helped Tennessee take control heading into halftime with a 21-3 lead and, eventually, an easy win for the Vols. 

It’s important to note that no one completes every pass. While pointing out an errant throw or two is easy to do, judging Milton’s in-game leadership ability is a bit more difficult. From outside of UT’s program, that leadership and ability to manage the game from the pocket looked pretty good in his third debut as “the man” at quarterback. 

Milton has been named the starting quarterback two other times to begin a season. He didn’t end either as a starter and just started his ninth game on Saturday despite enrolling at Michigan in 2018.

By comparison, Milton led the Vols to a 38-6 win over Bowling Green in Tennessee’s season-opener in 2021 in his first start. Milton wasn’t great. He completed 11-of-23 passes for a paltry 139 yards and a touchdown. To Milton’s credit, he didn’t throw an interception despite being in a new offense, facing consistent pressure and being sacked three times. Milton ran for 44 yards on 14 carries. Then, Tennessee football history took a dramatic turn.

Milton was injured the following week against Pittsburgh. Backup Hendon Hooker took over and assumed the reigns as the Vols’ starting quarterback until he suffered an ACL injury in November of 2022. Hooker was considered a Heisman Trophy candidate before he was injured against South Carolina.

In Milton’s first start of his Michigan career, the then-sophomore completed 15-of-22 passes for 225 yards with one touchdown. He also added eight rushes for 52 yards and a score as the Wolverines beat the Golden Gophers 49-24. That wasn’t enough good enough as Milton would lose his starting job later that season, which prompted his transfer to Tennessee.

Milton’s performance against Virginia may not be enough for all to be totally convinced that he can be an elite quarterback. However, he probably won some doubters over with the way he began the game against the Cavaliers and sparked the Vols’ offense when it needed it most. 

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