For years, Joe Milton’s talent has been a mercurial talking point at the tip of Michigan coaches’ tongues. There are the stories, repeated ad nauseum, of his arm strength. Early in his Michigan career, the stories go, he injured receivers with passes zipped in at warp speed. Eighty-five yards, allegedly, is his maximum throwing distance.

Giles Jackson has one of those stories too, as told in a Zoom call with reporters Thursday.

“In practice one time, we had a deep ball, I was probably 70 yards out and he just launched it,” the sophomore receiver said. “I thought he threw it late, but the ball beat me to my spot. I was like, whoa. He has an arm I’ve never seen before.”

There’s a different tone to such a story now, though. Because over the course of a few hours Wednesday morning, everything changed for Milton. First, the Big Ten announced its plans to return to play after canceling the fall football season just five weeks prior. Then, a few hours later, word trickled in that senior Dylan McCaffrey was opting out to pursue a transfer.

Suddenly, Milton, whose precocious talent had always sat outside of the limelight, was in line to start a football game for Michigan in just five weeks. For Milton, it’s an opportunity he always deemed within reach even as most outside the program assumed McCaffrey would succeed Shea Patterson as the Wolverines’ starter.

“Nothing been on my mind to (transfer) somewhere else,” Milton said last December, ahead of the Citrus Bowl. “Just being patient and humble. It’s gonna come one day.”

The program did not make Milton available to media Thursday afternoon, but Jackson has seen his teammate seize this offseason’s quarterback competition, even as practice time has been limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think he’s just more focused, I’d say,” Jackson said. “You could tell, as soon as this offseason, he was a whole different person. He was more serious, more focused. You could tell, he wanted to play, and he was just more locked in.”

The two live next door in Ann Arbor and have developed into close friends over the past year, part of a bond between Michigan’s quarterbacks and receivers. On the field, that has parlayed into a trust between two largely inexperienced groups.

After Nico Collins signed with an agent this week, indicating his intentions to declare for the NFL Draft, the Wolverines’ only returning starting pass catchers are junior receiver Ronnie Bell and fifth-year senior tight end Nick Eubanks. That lack of experience leaves a heavy burden on Michigan’s sophomore trio of Giles Jackson, Cornelius Johnson and Mike Sainristil. The three combined for just 21 catches for 348 yards and a touchdown last season, but all fit the mold of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ speed in space philosophy.

Combined with their burgeoning connection with Milton, that has Jackson feeling confident.

“I’m always with him getting better, watching film,” Jackson said. “I know in the offseason we were getting together, throwing footballs together a lot. That just helped. We have a good bond.”

Put it all together and Michigan has an offense built of players whose talent has always lurked in the shadows, thrust into the public eye only by press conference hype. On the field, Milton is 6-for-11 for 117 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. His freshman year of college, in which he went 3-for-4, is the only time he’s ever completed more than 50 percent of his passes, including in high school. And in Collins, he loses the receiver who most fits with his vertical style of play, at least on paper.

But now, that qualifier — “on paper” — is on the verge of becoming a remnant of the past for Milton. In 36 days, he will almost certainly take the field as Michigan’s QB1. And when he does so, the hype will finally meet its test.

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