ORLANDO, Fla. — Joe Milton stood on a deck at the Fun Spot America amusement park. It was 75 degrees and the Florida humidity was in full force. For Milton, a native of Pahokee, Fla., it was kind of like a homecoming. On Wednesday, the redshirt freshman expects to have 40 family members in the stands for the Citrus Bowl.
Milton, who spent most of the year as Michigan’s third-string quarterback, most likely won’t play much against Alabama. Instead, it’s the practices that are vital if he wants to reach his ultimate goals — goals he summed up well when asked why he left balmy Florida and went north: “The snow — I’m used to it now instead of having to wait for the NFL.”
The normal narrative around quarterback competitions is that they start in spring ball, when every quarterback must be at his very best. But Milton, who is expected to compete for the job next year with redshirt sophomore Dylan McCaffrey, knows that the battle starts now.
“In the beginning of the bowl practices (the coaches) said, it don’t start in the spring, it starts now,” Milton said. “So at the end of the day, it’s been starting for me.”
The event Milton spoke at, in which players paired up with local children for a day at the amusement park, was in some ways about being a kid again. But one of Milton’s biggest objectives this season has been, essentially, growing up.
He took two leadership classes this year, hoping to break out of his shell. The guy who used to never talk now knows when to raise his voice.
“Pick your head up and do your thing,” he says to his teammates when they have a down practice. “Come on, man, you’re good. Don’t worry about it. Just keep doing you,” he tells them when coaches are tough.
Part of that development has come on the field, too. As the season’s progressed, Milton — known for his prodigious arm strength — has realized that the best option isn’t always to throw the ball as hard as he can and hope a receiver can go get it. Instead, he’s learning when to tone it down, something that can lead to both better spirals and more catchable balls.
And while he has his moments of overt self-confidence — such as his comment about the NFL — Milton also knows he has to keep working. When asked his biggest area to improve on, he said “everything,” then expounded on how everyone always has somewhere they can get better.
His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, either.
“It’s very pronounced, just seeing him around, talking to the receivers, the O-linemen, and during the games coming over to the defense, making sure we’re calmed down,” said sophomore linebacker Cameron McGrone. “So it goes a long way.”
As the last days of the Shea Patterson era draw closer, only the coaching staff knows where the competition sits, and how much the events surrounding the bowl will make a difference. But regardless of who gets the call next fall, Milton is making sure he seizes every opportunity he can get. And he knows that sitting on the bench isn’t the be-all, end-all.
When asked if there was any chance he’d transfer if he didn’t get the job, Milton was frank.
“No, go Blue, man,” he said. “Nothing been on my mind to go somewhere else. Just being patient and humble. It’s gonna come one day.”