Milton mature and on a mission for the promising Vols

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III takes part in the festivities following last December's 31-14 Orange Bowl victory over Clemson as former quarterback Hendon Hooker stands behind him.
Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III takes part in the festivities following last December's 31-14 Orange Bowl victory over Clemson as former quarterback Hendon Hooker stands behind him.

With his frenetic afternoon of going from microphone to microphone during the Southeastern Conference's media days event in Nashville drawing to a close last month, Tennessee sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III was presented a true or false question.

Was he a teacher's pet of former Volunteers quarterback Peyton Manning at the Manning Passing Academy in June?

After ducking his head and laughing for several seconds, the 6-foot-5, 233-pounder looked up with a huge grin and said, "That would be true."

On the heels of Hendon Hooker stamping his two-year mark as the most efficient quarterback in Tennessee history, Milton has taken the reins and is eager to build on last season's return to national prominence that included an 11-2 record and a 31-14 whipping of Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Milton did his part to finish off the surge after Hooker's season-ending knee injury, guiding the Vols to a 56-0 victory at Vanderbilt before leading his team to the surprising success in Miami.

Milton's return is a huge reason Tennessee will begin this season ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press poll, as his experience is every bit the plus as his pleasant demeanor.

"Joe has been awesome," Vols third-year coach Josh Heupel said, "and that's since the bowl game and in January when we got back, but it's long before that, too. He's continued to mature inside of our program and has a great understanding of who he is and where he wants to go. He is on a mission every single day to do that and wants to have a great impact on his teammates.

"I love what he's done."

Milton was Tennessee's first starting quarterback under Heupel and led the Vols to a 38-6 spanking of Bowling Green in the 2021 season opener. He had transferred to Knoxville after beginning his career at Michigan, but his starting status two seasons ago with Tennessee was short-lived due to an ankle injury sustained in the second game against Pittsburgh.

Hooker took that opening and never looked back, throwing 58 touchdown passes in his two years with the Vols while getting intercepted only five times. Yet Milton remained patient and produced when given the opportunity, especially last season, when the Pahokee, Florida, resident completed 53 of 82 attempts (65.0%) for 971 yards with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions.

Of the 114 Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks who amassed 10 or more touchdown tosses last season, Milton was the only one who wasn't intercepted, and he believes he has noticeably improved.

"I'm very confident," Milton said. "I can explain my whole playbook and the ins and outs of it, and I just feel great. The guys around me trust in me, and they respect me like they did Hendon when he was here. They see me as a big brother but also as a leader, so whatever I say, they are willing to do.

"However far I throw it, they're willing to go get it."

The Orange Bowl certainly helped that status, as Milton completed 19 of 28 passes for 251 yards and distributed touchdown tosses to Bru McCoy, Squirrel White and Ramel Keyton against a defense that wasn't fully stocked but did contain eventual NFL first-round tackle Bryan Bresee and fifth-round linebacker K.J. Henry.

Milton earned the bowl's MVP honor for his performance.

"Guys around me were just being successful, and that's on both sides of the ball," Milton said. "The guys had a lot of trust in me. They made me feel like I was at home the whole time."

The dynamic to Tennessee's quarterback room already had changed before the journey to the Orange Bowl due to the arrival of five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava. Hooker and Milton had not only been competitors but roommates, but Milton's relationship with Iamaleava quickly became that of an older brother.

"Hendon and I were talking about that before Nico got here and how was I going to handle that situation," Milton said. "I just looked at it as an opportunity, because we had this five-star kid coming in who's really good, so why not help him? Then I got to know Nico and realized that he is very humble.

"He had a lot of outside noise hyping him up, but he's just a kid who's really humble. I pick him up every morning."

Milton is widely known for potentially having the strongest arm in all of football, but he would rather be recognized as the quarterback who led Tennessee to its first SEC East title since 2007 or to its first overall league crown since 1998. Two-time reigning national champion Georgia is an obvious roadblock to both of those goals, but he is not concerning himself with the Bulldogs right now or with the varying opinions of him on social media.

His chief objectives are leading the Vols to special heights on the field and being the perfect teammate away from it.

"What people don't realize is that as the backup, you get to be around the team a lot more," Milton said. "You get handshakes with guys who don't get to play a lot, so I've been able to build bonds here that you can't break. I'm most thankful right now for just being able to take the field with my teammates again and for me to know that they're coming with the right intentions this season.

"It's just like last season. It's great."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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