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Game Tape Deep Dive: Analyzing Joe Milton and the curious case of the drops

College football’s biggest conundrum: what’s keeping Joe Milton from breaking out?

NCAA Football: Austin Peay at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Milton has been a highly talked about quarterback from the day he threw his first practice pass at Michigan. The arm is stronger than anyone else in the country. From the day he transferred to Tennessee, that reputation has followed him, and excitement as well considering whose offense he’d be running.

Josh Heupel, a National Championship winning quarterback and offensive guru, has orchestrated multiple top tier offenses across every level of FBS college football. Of Heupel’s six seasons as a head coach across UCF and Tennessee, he’s posted double digit wins in three of them. Of those six teams, five of them have averaged 40-plus points per game, and the only season that his team didn’t, they averaged 39.3. It’s safe to say that Milton’s big arm and Heupel’s quarterback-friendly, high octane offense seemed like a perfect marriage. Sometimes, however, the best laid plans never come to fruition.

Milton transferred to Tennessee prior to the 2021 season, and he won the starting job over Hendon Hooker to start the season. However, an injury against Pittsburgh in the second game of the season forced Milton to forfeit the starting job over to Hooker, and with Hendon Hooker, the rest was history, quite literally. Hooker posted incredible efficiency in 2021 and never relinquished the job. We all know about Hooker’s historic 2022 where he broke every efficiency record in the school’s history, and if it weren’t for the torn ACL against South Carolina, he may have broken the touchdown record as well.

This gave the reins back to Milton to finish out the year. Milton beat a lowly Vanderbilt team before shining against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, winning the game’s MVP, capping off a season for Tennessee that felt like a return to form for a once great program.

Enter 2023. Tennessee is 2-0 thus far against vastly inferior opponents, but it’s been far from smooth sailing offensively, namely in the passing attack. The Orange Bowl created some lofty expectations from fans and draft analysts alike for Joe Milton, and they’re frankly unfair to a guy who just hasn’t shown what these analysts think he can develop into.

Milton has one major achilles heel, and it’s his accuracy.

It’s always unfair to compare one quarterback to another, but Joe Milton and Hendon Hooker have had their names linked together from the day they stepped on campus. There was a pretty solid understanding that Milton wasn’t anywhere near as accurate as Hooker, but the drop-off in that department thus far has been incredibly noticeable.

Against Virginia, it was a slower start mired by poor accuracy down the field that Milton cleaned up as the game went on. Against Austin Peay, however, the struggles were sustained, and Milton left at least 150 yards on the field with poor reads and bad passes.

Here was the first play from scrimmage for the Vols offense against Austin Peay. Tennessee has a ton of success on play action as you see both the linebacker and shallow safety creep up. This throw to Bru McCoy is behind him, but it probably should have been caught.

Two plays later, this happens:

This throw to Squirrel White is what you call a hospital ball. Milton does a great job diagnosing the coverage pre-snap, but everything after that is rough. Milton’s first “read” is to look off the safety that ends up popping Squirrel across the middle. You can see 27 bail with Milton’s eyes to the left. Everything here is working. It’s great play design. Then the throw happens, and a big play in waiting is thwarted by a late read and high throw.

This is a second angle of the throw, and it’s pretty damning. The top all-22 angle shows Milton’s head snap back to Squirrel in plenty of time to make this throw, and he delays his decision to pass. The second angle shows that Squirrel passes #4 for Austin Peay with about five yards of depth behind him, and if that ball is out when Milton gets back to his primary read, #27 would be way too late getting back to the middle, and Squirrel would have turned that up for another 20+ yards after the catch. That’s a potential huge play that would have reset the down and distance with the Vols in striking range that instead ends with a -1.8 EPA per and a punt.

The next drive, Milton drops back to pass on 2nd-&-8, gets through his progressions, does a great job stepping up in the pocket, and then misses McCallan Castles on what would have been a potentially huge play.

Another badly missed ball, this time to a wide open receiver. If the nearest defender makes the tackle on this if completed, it’s a 20+ yard gain. If you look closer, Ramel Keyton would have a hat on a hat on #13 in white, and this really could have sprung Castles free down the sideline.

Now don’t get it twisted, this has probably come across as a scathing review of Milton’s glaring accuracy issues thus far because it is, but the struggles between he and the receivers is not a one way street. The chemistry between Milton and his receivers just hasn’t been there, but something that has risen from all of this is one word: drops.

Per PFF, Tennessee receivers have had five drops through two games, and by my count, there’s been nine passes that have hit receivers in the hands that have fallen incomplete. In their defense, as we’ve seen above, passes that hit receivers in the hands are not created equal, and contrary to popular belief, just because it hits the receiver in the hands doesn’t mean it’s on the receiver if it falls incomplete, as we saw above. These, however, are drops.

This is on the next play after the misfire to Castles. Milton moves up in the pocket and fires a rocket to the left sideline, a great throw that gets Tennessee close to a first down if completed, but the hit hit jars the ball free and falls incomplete. Again, all of these throws are on the first two Tennessee possessions of the game.

This was Milton’s best play of the day, by far, and it was all for naught. He evaded pressure, rolled left, and threw a precise strike along the boundary to Dont’e Thornton, but Thornton inexplicably drops it. This drive eventually ends in a turnover on downs.

Tennessee’s offense hasn’t quite been as explosive to start 2023 as it was last season, but it’s not that the plays aren’t there. My main concern is that this isn’t your simple “if they start connecting on these, they’re going to take off”, it’s whether or not they actually do start connecting on these plays consistently. My reservations of Milton as a passer are in full effect, and the receivers have not helped him out when the throws are there.

The ground game has made up for a lot of the middle down-and-distance plays in progressing the Vols down the field, but they aren’t going to be playing against Virginia or Austin Peay’s defense all season. These throws have to be there a lot more consistently, or that 13-6 halftime lead could look much different against the gauntlet of an SEC schedule.

Joe Milton has an unbelievable opportunity right now to not just excel at the college level as a quarterback, but make himself a lot of money, but it’s going to take him being someone he’s not. Accuracy isn’t just something that shows up out of nowhere, and yes, the receivers need to do their part as well when Milton makes his out-of-structure great plays that we’ve seen he’s capable of, but the ceiling of this Tennessee team rises and falls with Joe Milton’s right arm.