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Can Tennessee win with a game manager at QB? The Vols may have to with Joe Milton III

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It’s time to reassess Joe Milton III’s strengths. Forget the monster arm and the elite athletic ability, the Tennessee quarterback is a game manager.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“He’s done a really good job of managing the game,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Joey Halzle said this week. “He hasn’t put the ball in a ton of precarious situations. We had a couple last week, which is really the first time, but he’s done a really good job of running the offense. Not just trying to go out there and be an athlete with a big arm, but running the offense at a really high level. 

“What we’ve asked him to do, he’s done really well. So, it’s been good to watch him grow from just a talented player into a true quarterback.” 

The term “game manager” isn’t much of a compliment for most quarterbacks. In fact, some take it as an insult, especially with so much preseason hype about Milton’s physical ability. However, Milton has managed games well for the most part, if one is willing to give him a pass for the loss to Florida in which the Vols seemed discombobulated without preseason All-SEC center Cooper Mays, who was injured at the time. The Vols looked like a different team with Mays in the lineup in a 41-20 win against South Carolina. As good as Mays was, he was better than you think.

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“It was huge,” Halzle said. “They were another team that liked to bring a ton of pressure. They changed the front up on us, gave us some un-scouted looks, and Cooper did a great job getting us in the right call, getting us all on the same page and allowing us to keep playing fast while we were changing calls and doing all that. Just having him in there I think fresh, physically what he did inside was really impressive. So, it was really good to have him back.” 

Mays’ return should make Milton even more of a game manager instead of a superstar. The Vols are a good running football team first and foremost, which sounds strange with offensive guru Josh Heupel as the helm as head coach. Nevertheless, Mays’ return will only enhance Tennessee’s ability to run the football. To avoid another disastrous SEC loss this week against Texas A&M, Milton’s best course of action may be to hand the ball off, complete some screen passes and not make mistakes. Tennessee’s coaches seem happy with that.

“He’s been a great common force for us as we go through games,” Halzle said. “He is always right in the middle, doesn’t get too high or too low. He has done a great job as we have had a lot of people out, of being that kind of calming center force that kept us going throughout the whole game.” 

If there is a big play for Milton to make, it may not be via the passing game. Milton’s legs have proven valuable when the Vols decide to go that route.

“That’s the thing,” Halzle said when asked about when Milton should run and when he shouldn’t. “When a guy has the ability to do that, you can’t tell him not to. It just has to be from us on the staff side, how much are you going to truly design for him? You just have to use the balance of when something presents itself. We have to go play and take advantage of it without being foolish about – we’re just going to beat him into a brick wall for four quarters.”

Tennessee’s coaches aren’t going to run Milton until he’s beaten down, but he also carries some of that burden to keep himself physically able to perform.

“The way he plays, he’s going to use his legs on his own too,” Halzle said. “You know that, and that’s what he does at a really high level. You saw it against UTSA. That wasn’t a designed quarterback run. That was him making a read and going and getting it. So, you can’t say ‘Hey man, I need you not to pull it (and run),’ because if it presents itself, he’s going to pull it. It’s just us on the front end of like, how much do we want to intentionally run this guy?” 

That 81-yard run by Milton that Halzle referred to that began the UTSA game didn’t look like a game manager. However, that’s been the exception to the rule. For the most part, Milton has managed games, which is a stark contrast to his physical ability. Can the Vols continue to win games in the SEC with that kind of quarterback play compared to what they had last year with former Vol signal-caller Hendon Hooker? We’ll continue to find out on Saturday.

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