Halzle believes Milton has another level to go to for Vols

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III is coming off an MVP performance in the Orange Bowl win over Clemson but doesn't want that to be high-water mark of his time with the Volunteers.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III is coming off an MVP performance in the Orange Bowl win over Clemson but doesn't want that to be high-water mark of his time with the Volunteers.

Joe Milton III will always have an Orange Bowl MVP trophy as an accomplishment amid a college career that began at Michigan and is concluding at Tennessee.

He's just not much for revisiting it now.

"I don't watch the Orange Bowl anymore," the sixth-year senior quarterback said this past week in a news conference. "That was in 2022, so I've let that game be. I'm just trying to get better every day from now on."

Milton was thrust into the starting role late last season when Heisman Trophy candidate Hendon Hooker suffered a torn ACL late in the 63-38 loss at South Carolina. He then guided the Volunteers to a 56-0 thrashing of Vanderbilt in Nashville and to a surprisingly resounding 31-14 victory over Clemson in Miami Gardens.

Against the Atlantic Coast Conference champion, Milton completed 19 of 28 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns, but nobody in Knoxville wants that to serve as his high-water mark.

"He has another level that he can and should go to," Tennessee third-year quarterbacks coach and first-year offensive coordinator Joey Halzle said. "He's older, but that was only his fourth start for us, so he's got a lot of ball still left to play. He made a lot of really good decisions in that game, and he protected the football.

"He threw it aggressive when it was time to throw it aggressive, and he's doing that at a high level right now, too. He definitely has another level that he can reach."

The 6-foot-5, 242-pound Pahokee, Florida, resident is eager to compile even better memories as well.

"I don't think I missed a throw that game, but seeing things correctly — there are certain reads in our playbook that you have to understand, and some of those things I did not do in that game," Milton said. "We could have had a few more points on the board if I had done more things correctly. We won, though, and that's what matters."

Milton completed 53 of 82 passes (64.6%) last season for 971 yards with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. He had a 61-yard completion to Jalin Hyatt at Vandy and a 50-yarder to Squirrel White in the bowl, which served as his fifth and sixth connections of 50 or more yards, tying him for 14th nationally among Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks.

Yet it was his touch on his shorter throws against Clemson that most impressed Halzle given Milton's struggles in that area after arriving at Tennessee in the spring of 2021. Milton has long possessed a powerful arm — Halzle calls it a "bazooka" — and he gained fame during on-campus bowl practices by throwing an orange more than the length of the field.

"I don't want to see that again," Halzle said. "That would be a funky way to have something odd happen."

What is different for Milton this spring is the absence of Hooker, who is preparing for next month's NFL draft after throwing for 6,080 yards with 58 touchdowns and five interceptions during his two seasons with the Vols. Milton has taken five-star midyear enrollee Nico Iamaleava under his wing and apparently has more influence than ever as a leader.

"Because of my body size, people will listen to me more," Milton said while smiling.

The Vols wrapped up their first week of practice Saturday with their fourth workout, which was also their first in full pads. They'll resume Tuesday, when Milton can again prove he is doing just fine without Hooker as a fellow competitor.

"Joe knows that he's competing against himself," Halzle said. "He doesn't need something external motivating him. He knows he's got one year of eligibility left, and he's trying to take advantage of it.

"He's dialed in every single day he takes the field."

Instant credibility

Former Tennessee defensive end Robert Ayers is in his first spring with the Vols as a defensive graduate assistant.

Ayers was the 18th overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, getting selected by Denver, and he played a decade with the Broncos, New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions.

"I think Robert is going to be a really good young coach," Vols defensive line coach Rodney Garner said Saturday in a news conference. "Obviously he's got credibility. When he says something, these kids believe, and they hang on to it. He's very passionate and knows what he's talking about, so he's going to help us become a better football team.

"One of the things we said coming out of last season was needing to be better in our four-man pass rush. Hopefully he'll be able to bring a lot of things to that."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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