Kyle Hayes didn’t want people to find out about Joe Milton.
Since the day he’d met Milton, giving his initial presentation to parents after becoming the football coach at Olympia High School in Orlando, he’d known there was something in that arm. He heard the hum of the ball and turned his head. After the presentation, he went over to introduce himself, and Milton told him he played wide receiver.
A few months later, when spring practice started, Hayes asked him to throw a 10-yard out route from the opposite hash mark. “In my mind, if you can throw that — that’s one of the hardest throws in football — you can throw the football,” Hayes said. Milton hit the throw. By the fall, Milton had supplanted a senior as the starting quarterback.
Hayes understood then that Milton had the talent to play high-major football. But he didn’t want him to be inundated with offers, coaches calling and distractions. When asked to give a list of his best players, Hayes didn’t include the lanky quarterback who stood over six feet and threw so hard he’d jam the fingers on receivers.
“I tried my best to hide him,” Hayes said. “I’m gonna tell you why.
“I’ve been coaching 20 years. I’ve had a lot of great players. I’ve coached several guys who have got to the NFL, big time college dudes. And so I wasn’t worried about him being recruited. I was worried about the recruiting getting in the way of him learning.”
The strategy didn’t work for too long. A friend of Hayes’s who worked at Iowa State soon caught wind. That became Milton’s first high major offer. “And once that hit the waves,” Hayes said, “it was over.”
On Saturday in Minneapolis, Milton, now a redshirt sophomore, will become the sixth starting quarterback of the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan. He’ll do so after beating out Dylan McCafrey, who came into the offseason the favorite for the job, and get a long-awaited chance to prove himself in an eight-game, coronavirus-shortened season.
Those who have worked with him say he’s ready.
Donovan Dooley, a quarterback trainer in Detroit, started working with Milton this summer. The group included Brandon Peters — a former Michigan quarterback himself — and Jackson Hamilton, whose father Pep recruited Milton to Ann Arbor when he was Michigan’s passing game coordinator. When off days at Michigan allowed for it, Milton would go to an area high school to work with Dooley, starting the day with a jog and going through a workout geared toward situational football.
When they first met, Dooley asked him where he wanted to improve. Milton said the same thing everyone asked about him has cited as an area of improvement for years: throwing with touch.
“We’ll throw balls all the time where the receiver is not technically out of his break yet and we’re throwing to the spot,” Dooley said. “You put the football over defenders. We call trajectory levels a level one, a level two ball and we’re just throwing the football to the spot. With good pace, we call it a firm ball but not a hard ball.”
The thing that made Hayes first notice him all those years ago — that hum of the ball, the noise it made when it hit the receivers’ hands — was both the reason coaches are certain in Milton’s ability and the trait that causes the biggest apprehension. When Hayes first started coaching Milton, he was converting a wide receiver to quarterback.
“It was when to throw the ball, where to throw the ball, how to throw the ball,” Hayes said. “And that was really the biggest thing that we had to worry about.”
Hayes told him if he threw it early, he didn’t need to throw it hard. If he understood the timing of the route, it would be easy.
“You don’t have to drill it in there,” he’d say. “You don’t have to Brett Favre that thing all the time.”
In essence, it’s the same things Dooley was working on last summer, and the same things Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh referred to last year when he talked about how Milton was focusing on finding different ball flights and elevations, making a catchable ball for the receiver.
On Monday, five days before Milton’s first start, Harbaugh’s answer on that issue demonstrated the strides his quarterback has made.
“Joe’s got a really strong arm, but he really took to heart to throw passes with touch,” Harbaugh said. “Necessary passes, appropriate. I think he made a lot of growth in that way, putting the appropriate elevation on the ball. He’s really made it a catchable ball.”
Michigan may not have had Milton on its radar without another of Hayes’ connections. He had coached with Devin Bush Sr. at Flanagan High School before Bush was hired at Michigan as an analyst. Once word got out about Milton, Hayes reached out to Bush. He soon got a call from Pep Hamilton.
Hayes stressed to Milton that — barring mistreatment from the coaching staff — he would graduate from wherever he committed. As transfer rumors swirled over the last few years, the possibility was never really there.
“He went through his ups and downs from an emotional standpoint,” Hayes said. “‘Coach I wanna play. … But I said, ‘This is what it is.’ ”
Now, that’s all paying off, and Milton is making good on a declaration made during his recruitment.
While visiting Ann Arbor, a group of kids saw him walking out of Schembechler Hall. Thinking he was then-defensive end Taco Charlton, they asked him to sign autographs. He did, but not without correcting them.
“I’m not Taco Charlton,” Hayes recalled Milton saying, in a low voice, so as not to embarrass. “I’m the new quarterback at Michigan. My name is Joe Milton.”
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