On Friday, Joe Milton III went to Neyland Stadium for a throwing session as part of his weekly routine before a Tennessee home football game. Turned out, this trip was anything but rote for the Vols quarterback.
“Walking down the tunnel by myself Friday, I kind of started crying,” he said. “But my coaches were in front of me. So, I had to show that I’m tough.”
Milton’s personal moment was part of an emotional week preceding his final home game and perhaps his final game as a Vol, depending on his decision regarding the bowl game. He tried to put each day into slow motion and cherish everything.
He spoke to so many teammates Friday night at the team hotel that he found some with whom he hadn’t created one of his trademark handshakes. During the Vol Walk to the stadium before Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt, he removed his headphones and took in the soundtrack playing around him. Upon reaching the field, Milton had to be relieved to realize he’d gotten most of his crying done the day before.
“I teared up a little bit (Saturday),” he said, “but not too much where people noticed it.”
Instead, the crowd of 101,915 saw a whole bunch of touchdowns. Milton had a hand in all six of Tennessee’s TDs, throwing for a career-best four and running for two more in the 48-24 victory. He punctuated his final score, a two-yard run, by doing three forward rolls in the end zone.
Milton topped 300 passing yards for the first time as a Vol, throwing for a career-best 383 yards. As it stands, he’s thrown for 4,159 yards in two seasons at Tennessee and 5,353 when adding his three prior seasons at Michigan.
With all of Saturday’s quarterbacking and gymnastics to consider, it was interesting that coach Josh Heupel’s initial comment when asked about watching Milton was to commend his “resiliency.”
“He continued to prepare to fight and compete extremely well,” Heupel said.
The comment was more about a season than a day. The final regular-season act for Milton and UT’s offense followed two weeks in which they did a forward face plant against Missouri and Georgia. After limiting the Vols to one touchdown two Saturdays ago, Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz told a CBS national audience, “Our defense kicked their ass tonight.” Last week, Milton threw for just 147 yards and the Vols mustered just one field goal after Jaylen Wright’s 75-yard touchdown run on their first play from scrimmage against the Bulldogs.
In all four of its losses, there was a clear difference between Tennessee (8-4, 4-4 SEC) and its opposition. There also were multiple factors in the outcomes. But Tennessee, under Heupel, always will lead with its offense. Saturday marked the 17th time in the last three years that UT has scored 45 points, the most in FBS. Their offense is supposed to deliver an ass-kicking, not receive one.
Of Heupel’s laments following the loss to Georgia, this one resonated the most because it seemed to address a larger picture: “Really disappointing that we have not found a way to put more points on the board to help this football team win.”
Until the Vols build sufficient roster quality and quantity on both sides of the football, they’ll have to prioritize scoring even more. Therefore, quarterback play will be pivotal if UT, in the short term, wants to contend again with the SEC heavyweights rather than just beat the others.
It was good for freshman Nico Iamaleava to see how Milton went about his business this season. Through it all, he set a worthy example for the understudy. Tennessee’s next quarterback, though, must make it his business to be better.
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.