Milton playing his best of the season for Vols entering crunch time

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III, shown here scoring on a 6-yard touchdown run in Saturday's 59-3 shredding of Connecticut, has completed 82.4% of his passes the past two games.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III, shown here scoring on a 6-yard touchdown run in Saturday's 59-3 shredding of Connecticut, has completed 82.4% of his passes the past two games.

Joe Milton III is playing the most efficient football of his career, and just in time for a demanding two-game stretch.

Tennessee's sixth-year senior quarterback has completed 28 of 34 passes the past two weeks in victories over Kentucky and Connecticut, compiling an 82.4% accuracy rate to go along with 481 aerial yards and three touchdowns. The No. 14 Volunteers will need that to continue with tests the next two weekends at No. 16 Missouri and at home against No. 1 Georgia.

"He's had his eyes in the right spot and has been efficient with the football," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. "He's been accurate. He's been timely. He's controlled our protections and our run game. You put all of that together, and it's why he's playing as efficiently as he is, but the guys around Joe continue to grow as well, out on the perimeter in particular."

Tennessee, which is 7-2 overall and 3-2 in Southeastern Conference play, will face both Missouri and Georgia on CBS with 3:30 p.m. kickoffs.

The Vols have flourished behind the 6-foot-5, 235-pounder from Pahokee, Florida, racking up 1,131 yards the past two weekends and averaging 10.0 yards per play against the Huskies. Nobody will confuse the past two foes for Missouri and Georgia — the Tigers and Bulldogs beat Kentucky by a combined 55 points — but Milton's accuracy since the 34-20 loss at Alabama is noticeably above the 65.4% clip he has for a season that also contains 2,016 yards, 15 touchdowns and four interceptions.

"That comes with practice," Milton said. "It's taking the practice reps to true game reps and understanding that every practice rep you take, you've got to treat it like a game. The moment you let up on a rep is the moment that rep can be taken from you within the game when it presents itself."

Since replacing an injured Hendon Hooker late last season, Milton has compiled a 9-2 record as the starter. Should he improve on that mark, Milton will have to maintain his efficient ways or could have to be even better.

"He's still a young starter within our system," Heupel said. "He's been here and he's had opportunities at the end of games, but he was still new as a starter. There were also a lot of new pieces and a lot of moving pieces around him. Good teams continue to grow and get better, and I like the way this team prepares.

"We've continued to grow, and because of that and his effort, he's continued to grow, too."

Owning the run

Tennessee will head to Columbia leading the SEC in both rushing offense and rushing defense.

The Vols average 227.78 rushing yards per game, which ranks third nationally behind Air Force and Liberty, and they allow 97.33 yards a contest on the ground, which ranks 14th.

"It's the growth of our program from where we started to where we are now," Heupel said Monday. "It starts with personnel and having good players on the line of scrimmage. We have guys who have played a lot of football on both sides of the line of scrimmage who have continued to get better, and we've had an influx of some young guys who are dynamic.

"The other position groups have a great effect on that, too. The tight ends. The growth of your running backs. The quarterback being involved in that, and then, defensively, you look at our linebackers and our safeties and being able to tie all three levels together. It's been a huge part of the growth of our program, and we're going to need it this week."


Sweet souvenir

Sixth-year senior tight end and UC Davis transfer McCallan Castles caught the first touchdown pass thrown this season by five-star freshman quarterback Nico Iamavaleava, hauling in a 19-yard score midway through the third quarter against UConn.

"In practice, I get most of my reps with him every day, so it kind of just felt second nature," Castles said Monday. "He was spinning the ball out there, and for me to catch it was a big deal. I kept the gloves and had him sign them today, so those will probably be hanging up in my house after his career here."


Rested and ready

The Vols routed UConn without running back Jabari Small, offensive tackle John Campbell Jr. and defensive tackle Omari Thomas, who were not listed as inactive before kickoff.

"It was an opportunity for them to get completely healthy," Heupel said. "They all would have been available if we felt like we needed to, but we just elected not to play them in that game. It will be big to have those guys back fresh and ready to roll."


Stellar setting

Saturday's game at Faurot Field is sold out, marking Mizzou's fourth consecutive sellout, which hasn't happened since 1980.

Heupel is expecting to see his share of Tennessee faithful.

"I'm looking forward to seeing Vol Nation show up," he said. "They've been awesome on the road this year, and we certainly want to see a lot of orange when we get there to Columbia, too."


Keep it going

Heupel was asked Monday why he continues to run his fast-paced offense when games are out of hand.

"There are times when you need to slow it down," he said. "In this last football game, our guys had not had the opportunity to play the way that we play, so I thought it was important to be able to evaluate them but for them also to have the experience playing how we play. That can be with backup quarterbacks or your young offensive linemen.

"It's one of their first game experiences, so for us to evaluate them and for them to have the opportunity to grow knowing you're going to need some of those guys, I just think it's really important to let those guys go play."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com