'It's his time': Joe Milton on track to take the reins in Michigan's opener
Michigan defensive tackle Carlo Kemp knew back in 2018 when Joe Milton was a freshman quarterback that there was something different about the 6-foot-5, 243-pounder. And it was more than just Milton's cannon arm on display running the scout team that wowed him.
Fast forward to this abbreviated Big Ten season that will begin Saturday when the Wolverines play at Minnesota, as Milton prepares to take over at quarterback.
“(I thought), ‘OK, this guy, right here, when it’s his time, it’ll be his time, and it will be very special,’” Kemp said Monday, referring to Milton. “Now he’s grown up into his third year with the same guys he used to lead on the scout team. All of them have developed, gotten better, and he’s gotten better himself.
“Seeing all that come to fruition is incredible. What we have at quarterback this year is a very special leader, a very special guy, and I’m very excited for him.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh would not name official starters at any positions because of COVID-19 testing and the possibility that players could test positive and would have to sit. But with that in mind, he essentially said Monday that Milton is the starter with Cade McNamara not far behind as the backup.
“He’s shown a lot of great things,” Harbaugh said of Milton. “Joe has been running with the ones. He’s made a lot of strides, getting a lot of reps, as well as Cade McNamara, who has closed all gaps, as well. He’s playing extremely well. Really good command of the offense, showing a real savviness and also a lot of talent.”
Milton has been firmly in the driver’s seat, particularly after last month's departure last of Dylan McCaffrey, the backup the past two seasons. McCaffrey decided to opt out this season and plans to transfer.
This is the second year coordinator Josh Gattis has run the offense and called plays, and he has a lot of new pieces to work with. Milton, who has limited game experience, will operate behind a new center, Andrew Vastardis, who is one of four new starters on the offensive line. He will also be without big-body receiving target Nico Collins, who opted out in August after the Big Ten originally postponed the season and is no longer with the team.
But Gattis is encouraged by what he has seen from Milton, who spent the extended offseason working with different quarterback coaches as well as throwing and watching film with the receivers as they developed their chemistry.
“Joe’s got a special talent,” Gattis told reporters a month ago. “He’s a quarterback that’s blessed with a tremendous skill set. He has every throw in the bag plus the extra club that you don’t necessarily need to carry all the time.”
Since last year, Milton has worked on developing greater touch. He can throw the 100-mph fastball, and while his release when he flings that kind of ball is something to see, it’s not always the high-percentage throw.
Milton has been able to scale back the velocity while more importantly zeroing in on accuracy.
“Everyone’s got all five fingers” Gattis said jokingly last month. “No fingers getting jammed out there, no one losing anything. His accuracy has been exceptional. That was one of the things we have talked about as far as taking RPMs off, knowing how to give a catchable ball. Accuracy as far as ball placement has never been an issue. Sometimes the issue had been in the past was whether or not those receivers could catch it that fast. He’s done a really good job improving in that but still maintaining his power in his arm.”
The receivers now understand what Gattis meant when he told them to never stop running because Milton has the ability to heave passes 70 yards, something he has done several times in practices. While it can be difficult for receivers to track his throws, they know the chances are slim he’s going to be short so their objective is to never quit on the route.
Sophomore receiver Mike Sainristil recently shared that Milton threw him a post route in practice and he reminded himself that he had to keep running.
“As I’m tracking the ball, I’m like, ‘This has to be the highest ball I’ve ever seen thrown in a while,’” Sainristil said. “The ball was in the air hanging, and I was asking myself, ‘When is this ball going to drop? Where is it going to drop?’ Head down, just kept running.”
Kemp said the offense collectively has been about keeping their heads down and working. The defensive players, he said, have seen what the offense can do.
“I’m just excited just because no one’s really got to see all the talent and all the things they can do,” Kemp said. “The only people that know are the people here at practice. Getting to see these guys play, there’s a lot of chemistry on that side of the ball as well. There’s so many good players.”
Linebacker Josh Ross considers Milton one of his good friends and is looking forward to this next era of quarterback at Michigan.
“To see him thrive and flourish has been amazing,” Ross said. “He’s been amazing. He’s been practicing really well, and I can’t wait to see him go out there and ball. Our offense is going to be elite.”