Ronnie Bell got back to Ann Arbor in April, when the place was still a ghost town — students at home, school all online, the rims off all the basketball nets and everyone under quarantine. Joe Milton was one of Bell’s only teammates also in the area at the time. So naturally, they found places to work, Milton throwing to Bell in preparation of a season neither could know the status of.

It would be two more months before the Michigan football team was allowed back into its building, and three months after that before the Big Ten announced that there would, in fact, be a season to play. On the same day as that announcement, it was reported that quarterback Dylan McCaffrey would opt out and transfer and receiver Nico Collins had signed with an NFL agent. That means Milton, in all likelihood, will be the quarterback and Bell his top target.

“This is the best I’ve ever seen Joe,” Bell said Thursday on a Zoom call with reporters. “Joe got here a semester before me, but I’ve been around Joe just as much as anybody and he’s just lights out right now.”

Out of the gamesmanship that governs college football even in 2020, Michigan hasn’t yet named a starting quarterback for Oct. 24, and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said Wednesday that it won’t name any starters at all. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Cade McNamara has gotten requisite praise. The job, though, is Milton’s in status if not yet in name.

“Joe’s got special talent,” Gattis said. “He’s a quarterback that’s blessed with a tremendous skill-set, obviously with an arm and accuracy. He has every throw in the bag plus the extra club that you don’t need to carry all the time.”

Milton’s arm has been the stuff of folktales since he arrived in Ann Arbor in January 2018. Gattis said Wednesday that Milton has reached 70 yards about three times with pinpoint accuracy. 

As far as declarations of arm strength go, it’s one of the more conservative estimates Milton has received since arriving at Michigan. As far as accuracy, it’s notable. 

“That was one of the things we have talked about as far as taking RPMs off, knowing how to give a catchable ball,” Gattis said. “Accuracy as far as ball placement was never an issue, sometimes the issue had been in the past was whether or not those receivers could catch it that fast. He’s done a really good job in improving in that, but still maintaining his power in his arm.”

Milton’s success or failure will not be based on talent. It will come down to fundamentals — pocket presence, reading a defense and accuracy — all three of which Gattis gave him glowing reviews on. 

It’s hard to parse exactly what that means in non-game situations when padded practice won’t even start for another week. Certainly it’s encouraging. So were all the proclamations of Speed in Space that marked the beginning of 2019. In reality, it took Michigan six weeks to look comfortable in Gattis’s offense, by which time it had already lost twice.

And yet, it’s impossible to discount words like this from Gattis: “Every day out there, he makes some type of wow play. Those wow plays are not just wow plays in college football, they’d be wow plays on Sundays.”

When the Wolverines lost Shea Patterson, their flawed but firmly entrenched starter for the last two years, Gattis said it was a little scary to stare down the unknown. A quarterback competition between Milton and McCaffrey would have dominated the spring and likely fall camp. Instead, Michigan is holding its first padded practice three weeks before kickoff and Milton is the presumed starter.

Gattis is perfectly happy with that.

“We feel great about Joe and we feel great about Cade,” he said. “Either one of those guys can go out and lead our team and our offense.”

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