The biggest question surrounding the Michigan football program this off-season, other than if there would be a season to play, was who would succeed Shea Patterson at quarterback. After two years of being led by Patterson, it was time for Michigan to turn the page. But turn the page to whom? Michigan had two talented, seemingly evenly-matched options. Would it be junior Dylan McCaffrey or sophomore Joe Milton?
After an offseason of speculation, that question was answered when McCaffrey opted out of the upcoming season. Michigan’s coaching staff may not have officially named a starting quarterback yet, but there’s no secret who will be leading the Wolverines. There’s also no hiding the enthusiasm in Ann Arbor.
Milton has long been known for his physical tools. At 6’5” and nearly 250 pounds, Milton could pass for a tight end. In fact, he was mistaken for one on an early recruiting trip. And he’s got the arm and athleticism to match his physique. Coaches and teammates marvel at the big play ability Milton gives the Wolverines. Michigan’s offensive coordinator Josh Gattis calls them “Wow Plays” and says that Milton is capable of delivering one at almost any time. The promise of a more wide-open offensive attack is certainly enticing, but Milton didn’t win the starting job because of his big play ability alone. He’s also improved his short game, so to speak.
One of the hardest workers on the team according to head coach Jim Harbaugh, Milton has made great strides in improving his play. He’s done this by doing the usual things, like spending time in the film room and on the field with his receivers, and by doing some less usual things, like spending time with a private quarterback coach and with former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner.
Consider Gardner impressed. “It’s effortless the way he throws the ball,” Gardner said of Milton. But almost as much as Milton’s physical ability, Gardner was as impressed with the young quarterback’s work ethic. “Joe is an immensely talented guy … (but) I think the thing that is going to set Joe apart … is he has left no stone unturned in pursuit of what he wants.”
Gardner is not the only one impressed. Coaches and players alike are effusive in their praise of Milton and talk about how he’s improved both his individual game and his grasp of the game in general. Milton discussed his maturation as a quarterback on the Coach Hayes Football Live podcast. “My freshman year, I was kind of young and I wanted to play right away,” Milton said. “I thought I had everything down.” Initially frustrated at his lack of playing time, over time Milton came to see the value in sitting early. The value in observing and absorbing. “I’m glad I didn’t play my freshman year,” he conceded, “because I didn’t know. I didn’t know the offense. I didn’t know what defense they were playing.” In his third year at Michigan, however, after working extensively with Harbaugh and quarterbacks coach Ben McDaniels, Milton is both more comfortable running Michigan’s offense and perhaps even more importantly, more adept at identifying opposing defensive schemes and coverages. “I feel more comfortable than I ever did in this offense,” Milton acknowledged, adding, “I feel like we’re on the right path as an offense.”
This increased comfort level is why Michigan’s coaches are comfortable handing their young quarterback the keys to the offense. But it’s his big play ability, or “wow factor” that’s generating most of the excitement surrounding the first-time starter. Said former USC quarterback and current Fox Sports analyst Matt Leinart, “Joe Milton gives them (Michigan) a skillset they haven’t seen before at this position.”
Not surprisingly, that excitement has made its way to the fan base, where some Michigan fans have all but retired Milton’s number already. But it’s not just the fans who are getting a little carried away a little too early. The Detroit Free Press described Milton as Michigan’s version of Cam Newton. Another article took the comparison a step further and debated whether Milton will be more like Newton or Texas’ Vince Young.
There’s reason to be excited if you’re a Michigan fan. The affable Milton is an extremely talented athlete who by all accounts is a very hard worker and is well liked by his teammates. And in his third season at Michigan, he’s achieved a comfort level running Michigan’s offense. But as much promise as Milton has, he’s still a 20-year-old who’s yet to make his first collegiate start. Growing pains should be expected, patience should be encouraged. It’s not wise nor fair to Milton to expect him to come out of the gate looking like, well, a Heisman trophy winner and NFL MVP.
Michigan fans would be advised to take breath and allow Milton to make the mistakes and misreads he’s bound to make as a first-year starter – one who will be facing some of the nation’s best defenses. There’s every reason to believe that Milton will develop into a very good college quarterback, but to borrow a phrase from Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, let’s relax a bit and let him get there. For everyone’s sake.