Tennessee head football coach Derek Dooley
KNOXVILLE -- At an imposing 6-foot-6, 207 pounds, January wide receiver addition Matt Milton looks the part of an immediate impact player for Tennessee.
Milton, who continues to offset his inexperience with big plays near the goalline, caught two short touchdown passes last weekend in the Volunteers' second major spring scrimmage.
At the very least, the highly-touted newcomer from Illinois seems an attractive red-zone target.
"That's what we're hoping," said associate head coach Charlie Baggett, who handles UT's receivers. "Anytime you get a kid that's that size, and has that kind of strength and athletic ability, you've got to try to find ways to use him. We're going to try to, but it just depends on how well he can come along, and how quickly he can learn, and we're still in the process of doing that."
Milton, like all UT freshman under Dooley, is rarely allowed to speak with the media. Coaches and teammates have spoken for him, though, and early returns have been generally positive.
The freshman has struggled to pick up the Vols' offense -- most do -- but the biggest thing has been his knack for making plays in the red zone.
"He's not just a big guy," safety Janzen Jackson said. "He's a good athlete who can make plays."
Milton made similar comments about himself during the recruiting process. He was adamant that his future was as a big receiver, not a thinner tight end, and he made sure every school recruiting understood that point.
Dooley is a noted fan of the tight end position, though, and Milton has already worked in some formations as a modified tight end.
Baggett claims he hasn't heard one complaint, though. The coach said the player's focus now is on finding someway, anyway to get on the field.
"Matt is a smart enough guy to know that if he has an opportunity to get on the field in whatever capacity or whatever position it is, I think he would go for it," Baggett said. "Just knowing him in the short amount of time that I've known him, I think he'd be open to anything to get on the football field."
And Dooley is open to moving Milton around to find the right fit. Being a "tweener" doesn't have to be a bad thing, the head coach said.
"He's a little bit of a tweener. He's kind of a big wideout, so you can move him inside a little. As he keeps growing, you can really put him in some run situations and use him to run some routes against a linebacker. When you do that, he goes from maybe being a speed guy to a real fast and elusive guy, depending on who's covering him."
Versatility is nothing new to Milton. He was rated the nation's No. 20 high school wide receiver prospect by Scout.com, but he caught just 14 passes for 232 yards as a senior. He did most of his work at tailback, running for 1,309 yards and 20 touchdowns. He also played single-wing quarterback in the "Wildcat" formation, taking his first snap from that position 76 yards for a touchdown.
Mascoutah High School coach Scott Battas said Milton was "the heart and soul of everything we did."
"He was a real leader on our team, and a whole lot of the things we did revolved around him," Battas said. "He probably could have played anywhere on the field and done a great job. He's just that kind of player, and that kind of kid."
Baggett coached similar-sized wideout Plaxico Burress at Michigan State, and the goal is to eventually molding Milton another Burress-type of player. Until then, though, moving the freshman around to take advantage of matchups seems the coaches' safest bet to get something out of their young talent.
"Honestly, he's not where Plaxico was at this point in his career, but I think we can get him there," Baggett said. "He's got plenty of ability, and he's a good kid who will work hard, and you can build on that. We're all excited to see how far he'll come."
Junior college transfer Matt Simms, the front-runner to start at quarterback this fall, said Milton has undergone a "total transformation from week one to now."
"I told him (Wednesday), 'Man, you're looking awesome. Keep working hard,'" Simms said. "He's grinding, he's really learning the playbook, and his physical tools are just unbelievable for a kid his age."
Milton took a reverse hand-off in Wednesday's practice, and fellow wideout Marsalis Teague said Milton looked more like a receiver than a tight end streaking down the sideline.
"He looked real smooth when he stretched those long legs," Teague said. "He surprised me a little bit. I didn't know he had that in him. That was nice.
"Matt's come long way since he got here. He looked real sluggish at first, but he's picked up on it real quick. He's going to be a really good player."
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