Vols’ Joe Milton aims to add Orange Bowl win to legendary arm strength

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee fifth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III and his powerful right arm will be in the spotlight Friday night when the No. 7 Volunteers face No. 6 Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee fifth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III and his powerful right arm will be in the spotlight Friday night when the No. 7 Volunteers face No. 6 Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

DANIA BEACH, Fla. — It's a simple question without a precise response.

Just how far can Tennessee fifth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III throw a football?

"I used to say 80 yards, but that's not true," Milton said Wednesday. "It's more than 80, but I don't know the exact answer."

Legendary tales of Milton's arm strength are growing by the day, if not the hour, and the No. 6 Volunteers are hoping to ride that force Friday night to an Orange Bowl victory over No. 7 Clemson. The imposing 6-foot-5, 245-pounder from Apopka, Florida, will be making his fourth career start for Tennessee and his biggest one yet.

Milton started the first two games last season after transferring from Michigan and started last month's 56-0 win at Vanderbilt, which was the first game the Vols played without Hendon Hooker due to Hooker's torn ACL the week before.

"It's another opportunity to play football, so I feel great about it," Milton said. "It's another day to cherish every moment, and I don't see this differently than any other game. We've got to finish it off for our brother Hendon. He put a lot into this program, and if he was out there, he would be playing his heart out.

"I feel like that's what we need to do as a team."

Milton has completed 34 of 54 passes this season for 720 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions, and he has displayed a right cannon that is best described as "otherworldly" by Vols second-year quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle.

"We're going to force people to cover the whole field," Halzle said. "You're going to have to, and that's what we get with him and with that arm strength. If a guy is not open at 30 yards, the play ain't over, because he might be open at 60.

"That dude can get it there, and he can get it there in a hurry."

Getting the ball there in a hurry has often been an issue for Milton, who was plagued by overthrows in his first two starts a year ago against Bowling Green and Pittsburgh, when he was injured in the second quarter and replaced by Hooker. Becoming more precise was an offseason task for Halzle with Milton, and it has yielded an improvement from 51.6% to 63.0% in accuracy.

Halzle said he will never tell Milton to be timid on a throw, but the two have worked on Milton getting more air under deep attempts.

"He has the ability with that arm strength to throw it at somebody 50 yards away," Halzle said. "A lot of people can't do that and will have to put air under it, so with Joe, we've worked on giving it air and letting your receiver track the thing and run underneath it. We've run down some deep balls with him this year, and it's because he has given it great air and great accuracy with it.

"There has been the mechanical aspect of getting your shoulder level changed and not changing your arm speed while you're still driving off your back hip, because you don't want to start guiding the ball. You don't want to take away what he's got."

That was never more evident than the third play at Vanderbilt, when Milton connected on a 61-yard pass to Jalin Hyatt that not only set up a quick touchdown but opened things up for a running game that would amass 362 yards on 31 carries.

"That played a big part in the running game and the success we had, and it was also big for Joe and his confidence," junior running back Jabari Small said. "When your quarterback is playing confident, you know what type of day you can have."

Clemson, of course, will look to limit Milton's big-play capabilities and adjust to some different faces. The Vols are not only without Hooker but Hyatt and fifth-year senior receiver Cedric Tillman, with Hyatt and Tillman choosing to opt out of the bowl to begin their NFL aspirations.

That has resulted in redshirt junior Bru McCoy, senior Ramel Keyton and freshman Squirrel White leading Tennessee's charges at receiver.

"They're not going to wholesale change what they do offensively," Clemson defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin said. "Milton has a huge, huge arm and can throw it as far as anybody that you will see, and their receivers who are getting this opportunity Friday night are dangerous and fast and can knock the top off a defense. They know their strengths more than we do."

Said Tigers fifth-year senior defensive end K.J. Henry: "I feel I'm getting the sense that people are trying to sleep on this quarterback, like he's not a starter and like he hasn't been playing big-time football his whole career. Joe is going to give us some fits, and having to prepare for him has been a challenge in itself."

A winning performance by Milton, who plans on using the NCAA's extra year due to the coronavirus outbreak and return in 2023, would not only put the wraps on an 11-win season but have Vols fans eager for next season to start. It also would add to a legend that includes junior edge rusher Tyler Baron claiming this week that he saw Milton throw the ball 70 yards from his knees.

"I did that. I would show y'all the video, but that's OK," Milton said. "I try to keep those things to myself, because I don't want the attention. We were in the facility one time, and Hendon asked me to throw it from the 50 off of my knee. I hit a goal post, and he was like, 'You've got to teach me a little bit of something on that arm strength.'

"I know my arm strength came from God. I just don't know where else it came from."

There was also the video Tennessee released last week of Milton throwing an orange 110 yards, which was not overlooked by Clemson.

"That was insane," Goodwin said.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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