Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Joe Milton has received quite a bit of NFL Draft buzz throughout the offseason. Why wouldn’t he? The .220 Swift is the fastest commercial rifle cartridge in the world. Milton’s arm might surpass that velocity. He stands 6’5″, 235 pounds, and has the athleticism to be a threat on the ground.
But quarterbacking commands much more responsibility than simply imposing your athletic will on a defense. We already know from scouting Hendon Hooker that Josh Huepel’s offense isn’t a good platform to project the mental side of the game onto the field. It relies on college hashes, a ton of spacing, screens, and shot plays.
That means we must pick out quarterback traits from an already limited sample. And the sample we’re provided from within the offense must be sufficient to even get started on draft-worthiness. So how should Milton have been viewed going into this season, and how did he fair against Virginia?
Joe Milton Gets the People Goin’
Any time a big, strong, and athletic quarterback comes down the pipe, NFL draftniks flock to show them off. And during the summer before their draftable season, it’s more than fine to turn a blind eye to a QB’s flaws to push optimism regarding their potential growth as a passer.
Michigan QB J.J. McCarthy is a prime example. He is mobile, flexible, tall, and has an absolute rocket of an arm. But he was inconsistent a season ago, and despite his flashes, he can’t really be slotted into that Day 1 range until those flaws are addressed. Against East Carolina, McCarthy flashed that growth.
Milton was Play-Doh that hadn’t even seen the seal on the plastic cap broken yet. He has a massive arm and a big body in an offense that was never going to necessitate the growth he needs to be an NFL QB. But like Hooker, who flashed late in his career at Tennessee, Milton could do the same. And a Day 2 selection is certainly in the cards.
But not if he plays the way he did against Virginia.
Milton’s Terrifying Virginia Outing
College football does not have a preseason, so we should extend a bit of grace toward early-season performances. After all, growth throughout the season can inspire hope for future growth at any position.
It’s also never fun to write negatively about a potential NFL Draft prospect. But sometimes negativity is necessary to temper expectations that have spiraled out of control.
Against Virginia, the Tennessee offense inundated us with screens and deep shots. With all the arm in the world, Milton bombed passes to open receivers and routinely underthrew them. One throw over the middle was so underthrown that the receiver (who had about 10 yards of separation) was unable to haul it in because the defender caught up to the ball.
Everything is late, even in an offense that does its absolute best to hand their QB the answers to the test before the ball is snapped. He struggled to maintain eye discipline and hold off opposing safeties.
This may be the best example of the uphill battle Milton faces as a quarterback who simply does not have a ton of experience despite being part of the college football landscape for six years.
Huepel’s offense can be a tough watch from an evaluation perspective most days, but he knows how to attack a defense, as shown above. He gets a middle-of-field-closed coverage here with cornerbacks playing at depth and facing toward the QB. It looks like Cover 3, and it is, in fact, Cover 3.
And all Milton must do is choose which seam to target. But he chose … poorly. Because the safety aligns pre-snap on the opposite hash, it makes sense to target the seam to the boundary. However, his attempt at looking off the safety was overexaggerated to the right and only a fraction of a second before he tunneled on the boundary seam.
Playing the position means trusting the post-snap picture based on what was seen pre-snap. Ideally, Milton keeps his eyes locked onto the safety, freezing him in place on the opposite side. From there, the QB simply flips his hips and shoulders to deliver the pass to the seam.
Instead, he telegraphs the throw and narrowly avoids a turnover.
The above video is another tough rep from Milton. The offensive line doesn’t make things easy on him here, but the ball should be gone by the time he hits the apex of his drop on this third down.
Before the video began, the RB motioned from the slot on the boundary back into the backfield. His defender followed, signaling that Virginia was likely playing man coverage behind.
It’s a half-field read with the boundary receiver taking a stroll in the park (another annoying part of this offense.) Squirrel White (No. 10 in the slot) is the fastest player on most fields. He’s running a slot fade with the outside receiver running a stopping route on the outside to create a runway for White to work with.
The answer to the test was there before the snap of the ball. There was effectively one option here — at least one good option.
Milton’s footwork is partially to blame. His hops don’t allow him any variability in his timing. And he takes an extra hop back instead of throwing a ball to the front pylon as soon as his back foot hits the 45-yard line. NFL QBs do not operate in ideal conditions. This ball must leave Milton’s hands.
Those two individual clips were only a fraction of Milton’s day. But not a single bit of his performance against the Cavaliers was NFL Draft-worthy. It’s important to note that absolutely none of this is meant to denigrate Milton but to set clear, real expectations about who he is and what he could be.
The rest of his performance was underwhelming. In this offense especially, a QB must be able to make the right decisions at the right moment. Hooker did that, and it is why he never relinquished the starting job even though Milton is clearly the superior athlete and physical presence.
It will get better. Milton was far more naturally accurate a season ago. He missed high quite a few times against Virginia, and that could be as simple as he was juiced up for the start of the season.
But until he gets a grasp on this offense, the conversations about his NFL Draft stock should be kept to a minimum.
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