Joe Milton, it’s your time (again). For the third time in his college career, Milton will get a chance to earn a starting quarterback job going into a season. He’s the runaway favorite to do so in 2023, with Hendon Hooker on the way out and inexperience behind him. It’s going to be Milton’s third year in the Tennessee system under Heupel — quite literally a now or never situation with his eligibility set to expire after next season.
The unique thing about said situation is that it’s already underway. Milton is the guy to close the year, as Hendon Hooker went down with a torn ACL against South Carolina. He closed out that game against the Gamecocks, then led Tennessee to a 56-0 win over Vanderbilt. The Volunteers didn’t need much from him on that night, as they ran right through the Commodores all game long.
Now he draws Clemson. The No. 7 team in the country is coming off of a blowout win in the ACC Championship over North Carolina, and they appear to have found something in former five-star recruit Cade Klubnik at quarterback. Clemson will be one of the best defenses that Tennessee has seen all year long, giving us a nice, legitimate look at Milton.
Is he the guy that we saw to start 2021? The guy that couldn’t hit a deep shot for anything — the guy that looked uncomfortable — the guy that got benched? Or is he the guy that we saw this year in mop-up duty? Milton was fantastic when he had the opportunities in 2022, although it did come against far more inferior talent. But still, he appeared to be more accurate with the football and looked much more in control of the offense. We didn’t really see much against Vanderbilt, considering that they played much of that game in the rain. Friday night will be a different story.
A fascinating wrinkle here is that five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava will be on the sidelines, too. He obviously can’t play in the bowl, but the future true freshman out of California arrived in Knoxville to go through bowl practices with the team. Iamaleava finished the year ranked as the No. 4 player overall in the 2023 class. He’s clearly the future, but when does that future begin?
Milton was asked about that last week.
“I see myself as Tennessee’s starting quarterback,” said Milton during his media availability. “I mean, that’s my title as I am. I’m also just a football player that’s trying to lead the team.”
Starting quarterback for Tennessee, he certainly is. This is his job, and most expect him to hang on to it as we go through the spring, summer and fall. But what happens when the lights come on this fall? What happens when adversity strikes? That’s where we need to see some growth.
The Volunteers won this season with truly elite quarterback play out of Hendon Hooker. Everyone would love to have a seamless veteran-to-veteran transition to Milton, but we can’t forget the accuracy struggles from 2021.
Friday night is his chance to put all of that to bed, and build some real momentum going into spring ball. We won’t see this team for nearly three months after the Orange Bowl, so plenty of narratives are going to be spun based off of his play against Clemson.
“This is a homecoming for him,” Tennessee coach Joes Heupel said. “He’s a guy that’s from South Florida. He’s gonna have a lot of family and friends here at the game. This means a lot to him.”
Milton, by every single account, handled the situation with Hooker perfectly. Hooker and Milton entered the Tennessee quarterback room in the same year out of the portal and ended up becoming great friend, despite the battle. Hooker has voiced his support for Milton, and could be seen on the sidelines during the Vanderbilt game doing what he could to help out with the transition.
As we enter year three, regardless of what happens on Friday, Milton is viewed as a leader going into 2023.
“He’s somebody that inside of our program has had a voice and has been a leader all year long, and has prepared really consistently,” Heupel said. “As much growth as he’s had from year one to year two in what we’ve done has just how he handles every day inside of our building, I’m proud of him for that. But that’s also led into him being consistent in his preparation up until we’ve landed here tonight in South Florida.”
The 6-5, 245 pound quarterback is absolutely dripping with potential. He might have the biggest arm in college football, and his huge frame and undeniable athleticism is going to add something to the ground game.
He enters the Orange Bowl 34-54 on the year, putting up over 700 yards passing in mostly mop-up duty. Milton has seven touchdowns on the year and no interceptions.
In an era of opt-outs and playoffs, bowl games seem to mean less than they once did. But don’t tell Joe Milton that. For him, the Orange Bowl is a chance to set the tone for 2023 — one that could make or break his football career.