Joe Milton awaits his opportunity

Thursday, October 10, 2019 - 3:25pm

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Alec Cohen/Daily

Joe Milton wore a band on his wrist when he faced the media after the 2018 Spring Game — the 6-foot-5 quarterback peering down on a semicircle of reporters gathered nearby. 

“Just be you,” the wristband read. It complemented regular reminders in his phone connoting the same message.

“I’m just being me,” he explained. “That’s why I have these wristbands. I’m just being me, regardless. Competition, as well. We all just compete. Having fun.”

The life of a backup quarterback demands that kind of self-reflection, coupled with a steadfast belief that one well-timed opportunity could change the course of your career.

Joe Milton’s chance is as close as it’s ever been these days, having meandered his way up the depth chart by equal parts fortune and persistence. Redshirt sophomore Dylan McCaffery has yet to return from his concussion suffered against Wisconsin, and as such, Milton has inherited more reps, both in practice and game. He completed three of four passes in an appearance against Rutgers, tallying 59 passing yards and two total touchdowns (one rushing). A brief stint, sure, but an undeniably encouraging one.

“It felt great, you know, just getting the opportunity to show what I have and show what I can do for the team,” he said Tuesday. “It just felt great.”

Milton’s merits are visibly obvious — an NFL frame, an arm capable of chucking the football 85 yards, enough mobility to trouble defenses. He contemplated taking up baseball in the past and believes he could step onto a mound and throw 93 miles per hour on the dot. His receivers in high school, left with dislocated fingers, surely wouldn’t question it. The raw talent has always been there. It’s what made him a consensus top-10 quarterback in the 2018 recruiting class.

Still, the shortcomings in his arsenal have always been just as evident. Milton has never completed more than 50 percent of his passes in a single season, dating back to his freshman year of high school. His 35-to-19 touchdown-to-interception ratio in high school, while far from disastrous, falls well short of the requisite production for a top-flight recruit. 

There were never any illusions that he would be a guy who could produce right away. As such, his development has taken place largely away from the public eye, confined inside the insulated walls of Schembechler Hall. What is said publicly, then, must be taken at face-value.

For now, whether by sincerity or necessity, the reviews are positive.

“He’s worked on (accuracy),” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said two weeks ago. “There’s different ball flights, different appropriate throws. Not everything is a line drive fastball. There’s gotta be a lot of elevation ... to make a catchable ball for a runner. Joe’s responded and is really working on it. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

Milton believes all that’s standing in his way is opportunity. He came to school keenly aware of the need to improve accuracy, a process he deemed “pretty hard” due to his natural arm strength, but one he’s worked tirelessly at. 

When he came to campus, Harbaugh told him to stop watching the ball and keep his focus on the receivers. That, he says, has guided his maturation as a passer rather than a thrower, a crucial distinction any quarterback can elucidate.

“I noticed that (I’d improved my touch) when my coaches started getting fired up,” Milton said. “They started jumping when I put the ball out there. That’s how I know I improve. I know for myself when I got better, then the ball just dropped. I kind of just stopped looking at the ball in the air so that I know when it’s going to land or when it’s not going to land.”

Added Harbaugh, who has seen dozens of quarterbacks develop in his time: “We can all think of quarterbacks throughout the history of football that never did be able to get, to understand throwing with touch or throwing with the fastball when needed the appropriate throw for the appropriate down. But he’s working really hard at it, and it’s coming along really well. Definitely has a lot of arm talent. 

“It’s really important to him, which is a must.”

Milton’s true moment of reckoning will likely arrive in the spring and fall camp to come, when the starting job will re-open with senior Shea Patterson gone and Harbaugh will inevitably declare open competition.

Soon thereafter, a true meritocracy will yield a verdict — and, ultimately, deduce whether this developmental project was successful.

When asked in the spring what needed improvement, Milton said “moving my feet quicker and just thinking faster.” Both issues, he posited, that would be hammered out with increased reps. He believes that’s now happened, that he’s ready if called upon.

“Everything else is fine,” Milton said. “That’s pretty much what I need to improve is my touch. I got that done, now I’m just executing plays.”

Executing plays. And waiting.