Milton still has time to carve own legacy with the Vols

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III gathers the Volunteers together before Saturday's game inside Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III gathers the Volunteers together before Saturday's game inside Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Joe Milton III was halfway to producing the same spectacular show against rival Alabama as predecessor Hendon Hooker.

Tennessee's sixth-year senior quarterback threw for 175 yards and rushed for 43 more during the first and second quarters Saturday afternoon inside Bryant-Denny Stadium, staking the Volunteers to a 20-7 lead at the break. Milton had an attempt that was too high and hard for tight end Jacob Warren that resulted in the Vols settling for a 13-0 advantage, but he atoned for that by lofting a touch pass while under pressure to tight end McCallan Castles that resulted in a 7-yard score to restore the 13-point bulge.

The Vols were overrun in the second half as Alabama raced away with a 34-20 victory, but Milton was asked afterward whether the first 30 minutes in Tuscaloosa were his best.

"No," he quickly replied, "because there is still more to come."

Replacing Hooker, the most efficient quarterback in Tennessee history, was always going to be challenging and accompanied by comparisons. Milton has guided the Vols to a 5-2 record entering Saturday night's game at Kentucky (7 on ESPN), which includes a 2-2 mark in Southeastern Conference play.

There is no questioning Milton's dedication and fight, as evidenced by the 6-foot-5, 235-pounder from Pahokee, Florida, lowering his shoulder into Alabama safety Malachi Moore to finish off a 9-yard run on Saturday's opening possession. Yet he also has been the quarterback who couldn't stem the momentum when Florida scored 26 consecutive points last month in Gainesville and when the Crimson Tide scored the final 27.

"I thought he continued to compete and continued to fight throughout the course of the ball game," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said during Monday's news conference when asked to assess Milton's play. "I thought he had really good decision-making for a majority of the football game, and he was accurate with the football. I thought he made plays with his feet.

"Some of that was in the quarterback run game and some designs, and some was not. Some of it was him scrambling around and making plays. There were some positive signs."

Alabama turned a 28-10 deficit during last year's game in Knoxville into a 49-42 lead midway through the fourth quarter, but Hooker memorably led the Vols to 10 points in the final four minutes to pull out the 52-49 thriller. Milton hasn't had that kind of moment this season and only threw for 100 yards in Tennessee's biggest win to date, the 20-13 topping of Texas A&M on Oct. 14.

A special setting for a special opportunity presented itself this past weekend, but Milton's marvelous first half had long evaporated by the time his fumble on a Chris Braswell sack was returned 24 yards for a touchdown by Jihaad Campbell midway through the fourth quarter for the clinching score.

"We just weren't assignment-sound," said Milton, who has completed 140 of 223 passes (62.8%) this season for 1,535 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. "Certain guys weren't doing their job, and I take full responsibility for that because I'm the quarterback and also the leader of this team. It's my team.

"Having guys assignment-sound for this next game will be very important."

Milton knows exactly what a special season at Tennessee looks like, because he wrapped up last year's 11-2 surge with a three-touchdown performance in the 31-14 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. He could not make it two straight wins for the Vols against either Florida or Alabama but still has time to create his own impressive legacy.

"Everybody on the team has a wristband on their left or right wrist," Milton said. "It says, 'Take a deep breath,' and, 'Just breathe.' Where are we right now? We're right here, right now, so it's just being able to take a deep breath and understand where you are.

"It's about embracing the moment. We all prayed for moments like this when we were young, so just take a breath and do your job."

Ready when needed

Freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava has played in just two games this season, but Heupel maintains the five-star signee would be ready if needed.

"He's done a good job and continues to prepare the right way," Heupel said. "He's continuing to gain a deeper understanding of what we're doing, and week-to-week you're seeing a lot of defensive structures that you've got to continue to prepare for. I like what he's done."

Longer TV breaks

Castles is midway through his one and only season with the Vols after transferring from UC Davis, which plays in the Championship Subdivision.

He was asked Monday about adjusting to the commercial stoppages on CBS and ESPN.

"It's definitely longer than I'm used to," Castles said with a smile. "When you play on ESPN+, it's like a minute-and-a-half break."

Deep middle absence

Milton's deep completions have been few and far between in recent weeks, and they've been nonexistent down the middle.

Tennessee's biggest pass gains have been to sophomore Squirrel White, who caught a 39-yard touchdown at Alabama and had a 50-yard catch against South Carolina on Sept. 30. White was near the sideline on both of those receptions.

"We've got to be better in all phases," Heupel said. "It can be protection. It can be routes. It can be Joe putting it on target. We've got to catch the ball. It's a little bit of everything.

"I thought we took some steps in our passing game last week, and we've got to continue to improve here as we go."

Fair catch explained

After Alabama pulled within 20-14 early in the third quarter on a 46-yard scoring strike from Jalen Milroe to Isaiah Bond, the Vols had to start at their 4-yard line due to a fair-catch signal that was not made by a deep back.

Heupel explained the situation Monday.

"The letter of the law says that anybody who puts their hand above the shoulder would signify a fair catch," he said. "We had a front-line guy who put his pointer finger up slightly above his shoulder. He's not coached to do that."

Lunchtime kickoff

Tennessee's home game next week against Connecticut will have a noon kickoff on the SEC Network.

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].

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