Joe Milton is not a subtle quarterback.
He stands 6-foot-5 and dominates the room, the talent evident from his frame. He said two years ago — before ever stepping on the field at Michigan — that he once threw a football 85 yards, and it felt believable. The phrase “arm talent” was made to describe someone of his ilk.
Then there is the rest of the package. Milton’s completion percentage didn’t rise above 50 throughout his time in high school. He throws with so much zip that it’s a problem — he said in the fall that his receivers would leave the field with dislocated fingers in high school. Nearly every time his name is mentioned, it is said that he needs to work on touch and accuracy. Those two things generally don’t threaten to derail the career of someone with as much talent as Milton before he even starts a game, but it remains to be seen whether they will prevent him from reaching his ceiling.
“There’s different ball flights, different appropriate throws,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said last season. “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.”
All of this adds up to Milton being perhaps Michigan’s most interesting player in a pivotal offseason where it’s unclear when the next practice will be conducted. He’ll have the chance to compete with redshirt junior Dylan McCaffrey for the starting job, but comes in as the underdog, as McCaffrey has an extra year of experience and has been ahead of Milton on the depth chart for the last two seasons. The lack of spring practice, too, favors the safer option — which is decidedly McCaffrey.
Still, Milton’s ceiling makes it impossible to count him out.
The Daily went back and analyzed each player’s 2019 season, focusing on Milton in this piece. The breakdown on McCaffrey can be found here.
What we’ve seen is better than what we’ve heard
We haven’t seen much. Milton has 11 passing attempts and 12 rushing attempts over eight games in two years of college. Two of his three spring games have been canceled — one for weather and this year’s over COVID-19 concerns — and the one in which he played was more an open practice than an actual game. Anything we extrapolate from Milton’s tape should be taken with a grain of salt.
Still, it’s easy to hear about Milton’s accuracy issues, then conjure up an image of Christian Hackenberg-lite, players on the sideline ducking for cover because the throws are so wild. Though no one with Michigan has ever spoken negatively about Milton in public, praise usually comes in a guarded tone when asked about him. Milton’s own availabilities have the same tone — it’s about what he’s working on more than what he’s done. The operative tense is the future, the allure is possibility.
When asked how he’d improved at the Citrus Bowl, Milton said, “Touch, not throwing the ball too hard at people. And putting it over the top so people can go get it instead of just throwing it and watching people run full speed.”
In game reps, though, we’ve seen him display that touch. When Milton got in during garbage time of Michigan’s win over Rutgers, he piloted a touchdown drive with deft control. Here, he stands in the pocket, sees Giles Jackson come open on a corner route and lofts one right into his path.
In last year’s spring game, he made what’s probably the best throw we’ve seen from him at Michigan. With Erick All darting down the sideline with a defender draped on him, Milton is forced to throw into a tight window of space, navigating the defender, All and the boundary. He drops it perfectly into that window, finding a spot where only All can catch it, with no worries about getting his feet down inbounds.
These are the kinds of throws that make Milton’s ceiling worth talking about. Not many college quarterbacks can do things like that. Fewer still can do it consistently, and based off both the limited reps we’ve seen and everything that’s been said about Milton, he isn’t in that category yet.
He’s not a developed product
As far as Milton’s chances of starting in the fall go, rendering the above statement false is the most important thing he can do. Michigan, despite a relative lack of hype, is a team that can win 10 or more games in 2020 if it gets steady quarterback play. The Wolverines are deep at skill positions, they’re in year two of Josh Gattis’ offense and have the offensive line depth to withstand turnover. Starting someone with as much variability as Milton is a pretty serious risk.
That’s not just a commentary on accuracy. In this play from last year’s spring game, Milton’s pocket presence isn’t up to snuff. Because of the camera angle, we can’t tell if any of his receivers are open, but this is a spot where Milton needs to sense the pressure and get out of the pocket. Instead, he seems not to notice the pocket collapsing as linebacker Jordan Glasgow drives offensive lineman Chuck Filiaga into him.
But the accuracy remains a problem. In the spring game, Milton badly overthrew open receivers twice, both times preventing a potential explosive play.
In the second of those clips, Milton also doesn’t see an open Tarik Black underneath, instead opting for a more difficult, better-covered throw. Especially if his accuracy is less than dependable, Milton needs to be willing to take an easy throw if a defense puts it in front of him.
Here, against Rutgers, he does that well, finding Donovan Peoples-Jones on an angle route to convert a third-and-5 instead of trying to do too much.
“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 at the appropriate throw for the appropriate down,” Harbaugh said during the season. “But he’s working really hard at it, and it’s coming along really well.”
Erasing that concern feels like a prerequisite for Milton to start.
Milton isn’t much of a threat with his legs
This isn’t necessarily a prerequisite to play in Josh Gattis’ offense — no one would describe Shea Patterson as a prolific runner, and in 2019, he recorded 87 rushing attempts for a total of 50 yards without adjusting for sacks.
The threat of Patterson taking off was an important element of Michigan’s offense, though. It’s no coincidence that things picked up later in the year, when Patterson had fully recovered from an oblique injury and was more willing to take advantage of options on zone-read looks.
As it relates to Milton’s chances of starting in 2020, it’s notable that he’s far more of a pocket passer than McCaffrey. Running is a big part of McCaffrey’s game. In an offense predicated on forcing defenses into making the wrong choice via the option game, McCaffrey would make the quarterback running a prevalent part of what Michigan does. Milton would not.
Milton is still capable of running an option, as we saw in the spring game. Milton makes the right decision to keep and beats the defender to the edge, getting into the end zone, but until the last second, he’s looking to tight end Luke Schoonmaker in the flat for a throw.
In this element, Michigan’s offense could look markedly different based on who starts. Harbaugh and Gattis aren’t just looking to pick the best quarterback, they’re picking the best fit, and in a close competition, it could come down to that.