KNOXVILLE - Matt Milton admits he's been a bit of a broken record in his post-practice interviews the past three weeks of spring practice.
"I've said it probably to everybody out here," the Tennessee receiver said after the Volunteers' second spring scrimmage last Saturday afternoon. "I know what I'm doing now, I'm catching the ball and now it's really about speed [and] learning to play fast. [Receiver] Coach [Charlie] Baggett always talks about the [NFL] - these guys take off fast, they run their routes fast, everything's fast. I can run that fast, but it's just playing that fast is where I need to get. I think after that I'll be up there with them."
The "them" the 6-foot-5, 210-pound rising sophomore is referring to would be Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers, the receiver duo that came in with Milton as freshmen last season. Despite having a head start after enrolling early for spring practice a year ago, Milton quickly fel behind Rogers and Hunter and watched the two make splashes in UT's offense.
"I think his freshman year last year, some guys develop quicker than others do and Matt, it took him a little while to catch on," the 11-year NFL coaching veteran Baggett said last week. "Now that he's caught on, he knows how to work hard, he knows what we're looking for [and] he's really come a long ways."
Even with that progress, both UT coach Derek Dooley and Baggett have said this spring that Milton still has some ground to make up to become a dependable receiver, something Milton himself will admit. His biggest improvement might be his softer hands, an area in which he struggled in practice during last season.
"I've taken some crazy steps, but they've actually worked," Milton said. "My dad, he told me to twist towels - get a big towel, soak it and just twist it and wring it. I've caught so many balls. Grippers, holding dumbbell plates, everything like that - it's really helped though."
Milton played in just four games as a freshman as he watched Hunter and Rogers combined to catch nine touchdowns. The trio has become close friends and dubbed themselves "The Big Three" this spring.
"Best friends. Matt was my roommate for six months, [and] Justin lives right down the hall," said Rogers, a former Calhoun High School star. "We always hang out every day. I know exactly how [Milton] feels, how they're feeling. I know when they need to get a, 'Come on, man, calm down,' when they need a pep talk."
Hunter and Rogers figure to slide into the voids left by the departures of Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore, but the Vols are still looking for reliable third and fourth receivers for its passing game. With rising junior Zach Rogers and midterm enrollee Vincent Dallas getting looks in the slot this spring while Milton working primarily the X- and Z-receiver spots behind Hunter and Rogers.
"We're still young [and] there's stuff we need to work on, but being young isn't an excuse when you're out there on Saturdays," Milton said. "Justin's going to get bracketed, Da'Rick's probably going to get bracketed - there's space in there for plays to be made."
As UT's tallest target, Milton could find a niche as a red-zone target near the end zone.
"He knows how to shield, use his body, get people on his back hip and catch balls," Da'Rick Rogers said. "He knows how to make bad balls look like gift balls by good position."
"I still think he has a long ways to go, but he does have some tools," Baggett said. "He's a size-speed guy - I didn't know he ran as fast as he does - so it was surprising to see him in the winter workout program what he timed out at. He just has to learn a few more fundamentals and the ins and outs of being a good receiver, and I think he's going to improve even more."
Correspondent Matt Dixon contributed to this story. Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrownTFP.