Milton performance at Vandy ‘weird’ but effective for Vols

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III waits for the snap during Saturday night’s rain-soaked, 56-0 victory over Vanderbilt in Nashville.

So what was it like for the Tennessee Volunteers to take the field Saturday night at Vanderbilt with Joe Milton III as their starting quarterback instead of Hendon Hooker?

"It was weird, but we're used to Joe being out there," sophomore running back Jaylen Wright said. "We knew Joe was ready, and it was the same as far as us preparing well in practice, but it was really weird."

Hooker's streak of 22 consecutive starts ended with the torn left anterior cruciate ligament that the sixth-year senior suffered during the early stages of the fourth quarter of Tennessee's 63-38 loss at South Carolina on Nov. 19. It was a discouraging blow to the program's best Heisman Trophy candidate since Peyton Manning a generation ago, but it opened the opportunity door for the 6-foot-5, 245-pound, fifth-year senior from Pahokee, Florida.

Milton, who started the first two games last season before tearing ankle ligaments, engineered an offensive onslaught inside FirstBank Stadium in which the Vols needed just 16 minutes and 15 seconds of possession time to rack up their 56-0 slaughter. The overwhelming majority of Tennessee's productivity was accomplished on the ground, as the Vols had 31 rushes for 362 yards to set a single-game program record of 11.7 yards per carry.

Wright, Jabari Small and Dylan Sampson each had at least one touchdown run of 50 yards or longer, and it was Milton who served as the clear catalyst on the rainy evening.

"The first thing you worry about is turnovers, and I thought we played pretty clean as far as exchanges and no turnovers," second-year coach Josh Heupel said. "That's the first part on the playing side of it, and overall I thought he handled the game really well. During the course of the week, he stayed in his routine when he was in our building, and I think that speaks to the way that he had prepared as a backup, too.

"His habits didn't really change as far as extra time spent in the building and watching film with coaches. He was excited for his opportunity, and he has prepared for a long time to get another opportunity and play better."

Milton, who began his career at Michigan before transferring, went a long way in opening up Tennessee's running-game success by launching a 61-yard strike to Jalin Hyatt on the third snap from scrimmage. He would finish 11-of-21 passing for 147 yards and a touchdown.

There were still multiple throws with too much juice, and Milton smiled afterward when asked if he had ever underthrown a receiver.

"Sometimes it leads to excitement, but you kind of just flush it and get ready for the next play," he said. "That's the point of this offense, but yeah, you can say it's excitement."

Milton has completed 34 of 54 attempts this season (63.0%) for 720 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions, and his efficiency rating of 217.74 tops the 175.51 of Hooker that is qualified to rank third nationally. Of course, sixth-year senior tight end Princeton Fant retired the efficiency trophy last month at 984.40 with the 66-yard scoring toss to Hyatt against UT Martin that serves as his only attempt of the season.

Hooker traveled with the team to Vanderbilt, and his presence not only aided the Vols but Milton in particular.

"For me personally, it means a lot, because I've been there for him, and he's always going to be there for me," Milton said. "His presence carries a lot, because our whole team just loves him and loves being around him. He's just a great person. The best advice he gives is just for me to be me and to keep doing what I do in practice.

"Nothing really changed for me. I've been doing this since Hendon became the starter. Since that day, I've just been preparing myself to be ready for the moment, and obviously I was tonight."


Weekly honors

Tennessee continued to rack up the Southeastern Conference weekly honors Monday, with Sampson earning freshman of the week and senior edge rusher Roman Harrison earning defensive lineman of the week. Sampson rushed 12 times for 131 yards and a touchdown against the Commodores, while Harrison tallied 2.5 tackles for loss, which included two sacks.

The Vols finished the regular season with 15 weekly honors from the SEC, topping Georgia (12) and LSU (11) for the most. Tennessee's previous high in weekly honors was 11 back in 2011.


Odds and ends

Tennessee has scored 568 points to shatter the single-season program mark of 511 set just last year. ... Vols offensive coordinator Alex Golesh and Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken are among the five finalists for the Broyles Award, along with Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter and TCU offensive coordinator Garrett Riley.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.