MINNEAPOLIS — Joe Milton didn’t think he’d be emotional.
He had prepared for this moment for the better part of three years or, in some senses, a lifetime. He thought that meant he would be stoic on Saturday, when he was set to suit up as Michigan’s starting quarterback for the first time.
So Milton embarked on the same routine he’s carried out as the Wolverines’ third stringer for the past two years. He walked into the locker room, dressed head to toe in blue Michigan warmups, save for a pair of all-black Nike Air Force 1s and a white beanie emblazoned with the logo of The Uniform Funding Foundation. Over the beanie, he played music through a pair of black headphones.
When he got into the locker room, Milton sat down and removed his headphones, immersing himself in the surroundings of TCF Bank Stadium’s away locker room.
That’s when it hit him.
“I started tearing up,” Milton said, “because it’s real.”
Four hours later, he had commanded a convincing, 49-24, win over No. 21 Minnesota, the biggest road win over a ranked team in the Jim Harbaugh era. Milton completed 15 of 22 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown, adding 52 yards and a score on the ground.
For Milton, it was a dream debut. For Michigan, it was the vindicating culmination of four years of scouting and development.
The Wolverines first heard about Milton in part due to his high school coach’s connections on the Michigan staff. Immediately, Milton, a converted wide receiver, caught the eye of Harbaugh and then-offensive coordinator Tim Drevno.
“His arm strength was huge coming out of high school,” Drevno told The Daily this week. “He was a guy who could make a play where there was no play to be made.”
That much is lore by now — the 80-yard throws in practice, the passes delivered with such force that they mangle receivers’ hands.
But shrouding the talent was a unique lack of production. While most four-star high school quarterbacks are leading their teams to state titles, Milton never eclipsed a 50% completion percentage at Olympia High School.
His weaknesses, according to Drevno, ranged from dropback technique to going through his reads. And yet, excitement in their new recruit bubbled at Schembechler Hall.
“You don’t want to get the guy that’s already polished,” Drevno said. “You wanna know a guy, what’s his ceiling? How much better is he gonna get?”
In Milton, Michigan had that to the extreme. So from the moment he arrived on campus in the winter of 2018, the Wolverines had a development plan.
Initially fourth on the depth chart behind Shea Patterson, Dylan McCaffrey and Brandon Peters, Milton still saw an outsized share of the workload in practices to acclimate him to the speed of college football.
“They knew what he was capable of,” Kyle Grady, a walk on quarterback who was with the team during the 2018-19 school year, told The Daily. “And they did a good job of getting him in there, getting him physical reps.”
But more important at first was his work in the film room.
Over the course of his first year at Michigan, Milton worked with Pep Hamilton, the Wolverines’ passing game coordinator at the time, to improve his understanding of defenses. That development course accelerated in Jan. 2019, when Michigan replaced Hamilton with offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and promoted offensive analyst Ben McDaniels to quarterbacks coach.
According to Grady, McDaniels had a different approach to Milton’s development. McDaniels started from square one, making Milton re-learn the most basic defensive schemes — Cover 0 and Cover 1 — and building up to obscure and disguised variances of more flexible schemes like Cover 2 and Cover 6.
“That was huge for all the quarterbacks’ development, but Joe specifically to go from square one, ask questions he needs to ask and really thoroughly understand what the defense is trying to do to you,” Grady said.
By last fall, when McCaffrey suffered a concussion that forced Milton into backup duty, his progress was tangible. He showed the touch that Harbaugh has repeatedly emphasized on multiple occasions, including on his first career touchdown pass against Rutgers.
“There’s different ball flights, different appropriate throws,” Harbaugh said then. “Not everything is a line drive fastball.”
Early in the first quarter on Saturday, it was that development that crystalized itself on the most important play of Milton’s young career. Tied at seven on the edge of field goal range, Michigan faced a key early third-and-5.
Freshman receiver Roman Wilson lined up in the slot to the left, running a post route over the middle, where Milton delivered a perfectly placed touch pass in between the dropping linebackers and converging safeties.
A drive later, it was Milton’s decision making on display. Rolling out to his left from the eight-yard line, Milton had Wilson and sophomore tight end Erick All running routes in the end zone. When both players were covered, he sold a fake to All and found senior fullback Ben Mason in the flat, allowing Mason to make an acrobatic play for the touchdown.
“He was on target all night and played with the poise of a savvy veteran,” Harbaugh said after the game. “Had a great command of the offense.”
There were times, too, when Milton’s innate duality shone through.
With 22 seconds left in the first half, he misread the defense, throwing to All in double coverage on a four verticals concept and narrowly avoiding an interception. After the game, Harbaugh said, “He went through his reads extremely well. Maybe he missed one that I can think of,” likely in reference to the play.
Milton, though, regrouped and made the type of throw that had the Wolverines salivating over him as a high school prospect. Rolling to his left away from pressure, Milton flicked his wrist and delivered a 45-yard pass across his body, inches away from sophomore receiver Giles Jackson’s outstretched arms, only foiled by Jackson’s indirect route to the ball.
A quarter later, Milton made a similar play, only more within the realm of human possibility. Stepping up to his left again, he found All in the flat. Harbaugh later called it a “perfect” throw, on a play that he said Milton wouldn’t have been able to make a year or two ago.
It came a snap after Milton had jumped sideways down the Michigan sideline, with his left hand on his hip and right arm pointed toward All in celebration of a surefire touchdown, only to see his pass drop through All’s hands. When it fell, Milton briefly dropped his head in dejection, before jogging back to the huddle and trying again.
Two plays later, the Wolverines were in the end zone anyway, thanks to their new quarterback and the three years that turned his promise into reality.
“I was pretty impressed with myself,” Milton said through a thin smile. “I’ve been working on that a long time.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.