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Josh Heupel talks through the growth of Joe Milton at SEC Media Days

Safe to say he’s excited about his quarterback.

NCAA Football: SEC Media Day Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Just 22 months ago, Joe Milton introduced himself to Tennessee fans as Josh Heupel’s first starting quarterback in Knoxville. The results? Lackluster. Milton couldn’t rein in his all-world arm, creating some early inconsistencies for Heupel’s 2021 offense.

By now you know the story. Hendon Hooker took over after Milton got hurt and turned in two of the best statistical years under center that Tennessee fans have ever seen.

What you didn’t see was Joe Milton heading for the exits. The Michigan transfer opted to play the long game, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for the 2023 season. That season has now arrived, and it’s Joe’s time to shine.

“I think one of the great stories in college football in the era of the transfer portal is (Milton’s) trust and ability to recognize areas that he can continue to grow in and trust the people around him,” Heupel said on Thursday at SEC Media Days. “Understand that within our scheme, he’s going to have an opportunity to do everything he wants to, which is be one of the best players in college football. Through that process over the last, you know, 18 to 24 months, he’s continued to grow in his comfort of who he is, what he’s about and how he wants to attack and approach every single day and how he wants to grow as a football player, meaning fundamentally at the quarterback position, along with understanding offensive and defensive schemes so that he can puts his eyes in the right spot.”

Milton, despite being a junior back in 2021, came off pretty raw as a player. Tennessee added him after spring practices, meaning he had only fall camp to get ready for the season. His physical talents clearly won out in the end, but it didn't’ translate to in-game success.

Was he comfortable in the offense in that first year? No, Milton admitted on Thursday.

“About a year — about a year,” Milton said of how long it took him to get comfortable in the offense. “Probably the third game of last season.”

“You play a whole lot different (when comfortable) as you can see,” Milton continued. “Hendon got comfortable in the offense and (you see) what happened. As you get comfortable, things just open up for you. Things open up for the other guys as well.”

Milton embraced the backup role and went to work behind Hooker. The results were obvious in 2022, even in mop-up duty. Milton would get his shot early after Hooker went down with a torn ACL, getting the call to start against Vanderbilt and Clemson. We’ll throw the Vanderbilt game out considering the weather, but facing Clemson’s big-time defense was going to be a legitimate challenge for Milton.

And he passed with flying colors. It wasn’t perfect, but Milton looked like a different guy.

“I think it solidified all the work that he put in that he would go out and perform and play,” Heupel said. “It was proving himself right as much as anything it. Wasn’t about proving anybody wrong. It was about proving himself right. It was great for him and the guys around him to see that hard work does pay off and take advantage of your opportunities and be prepared when it comes.”

Milton now enters the year as an unquestioned leader on the team and the starter at quarterback heading into the fall. Five-star freshman Nico Iamaleava is waiting behind him, but all of the talk from the staff suggests Milton is ready for a big showing in 2023.

“His preparation, his urgency, how he practiced, all those things led himself and everybody inside our building to believing that he was going to play at that type of level,” Heupel said. “And he’s got a lot more out there. He’s had a great off season for 15 practices in spring ball. Did a great job of working, navigating the pocket, and being extremely accurate with the football. I’m really excited to get back on the grass with him during the course of training camp. I believe he’s poised to have a great ‘23 season.”

Milton has it all on the line this fall. A successful season could see him rocket up NFL Draft boards, meaning quite literally that millions of dollars and a football career are at stake. A big season could also put Tennessee in the thick of the College Football Playoff conversation.

Heupel is confident — Milton is confident. Let’s see what happens next.