When your offensive struggles, the quarterback is going to catch the blame — that’s just how it works. That’s some of the case here with Tennessee and Joe Milton, with the offense struggling their way through the first three games of the season.
Milton, who was hyped up all offseason (for good reason), has been up and down to this point. We’ve seen some of the old inaccurate Joe, but we’ve also seen some of the new and improved Joe, with very little help coming from his wide receivers. Overall, the offensive just isn’t in rhythm, for a variety of reasons.
Still, the most popular player on the team when the offense is struggling is the backup quarterback, and that’s even more so the case when the back up is a five-star, No. 1 overall player. This team will be Nico Iamaleava’s next year, but after the loss to Florida, chatter began picking up steam for the Iamaleava era to begin even sooner.
The Tennessee staff has continued to praise Milton through that chatter, however, blaming the struggles on mental errors, penalties and receiver route precision. You can also point to the Cooper Mays injury as a reason why.
Offensive coordinator Joey Halzle echoed Josh Heupel’s praise on Tuesday.
“Joe was really good — his decision-making, his calmness on the sidelines,” Halzle said of Milton against Florida. “He kept the calm within the storm out there, talking to him on the headset. Man, he was — after every single drive, he was like, ‘All right, cool,’ like, ‘Move on. What do we got coming next?’ So the guy’s really even-keeled. His decision-making is really good. Was accurate with the football. The guy played a good game. Was happy with that. Obviously, we can always be better.”
He was then asked directly about whether or not Iamaleava would improve the efficiency of the offense. Halzle, who is known for being a bit of a long-winded talker, shut it down quickly.
“No,” Halze said. “Because it’s operation. Joe’s operating at a really high level. No.”
There you go. And he’s right — for now.
This is Joe Milton’s team and he deserves the chance to ride this out and get things going. Give him Mays back, give him a couple more weeks with these receivers, let’s cut down on the pre-snap penalties and see what happens. Milton has been far from perfect, but it certainly all doesn’t fall on his shoulders.
We can revisit this conversation as the season goes, too. If Tennessee drops a couple more, then you start looking ahead to 2024. Why wouldn’t you play Iamaleava at that point? But we’re not there yet, and the staff clearly feels the same.