The Joe Milton era of Michigan Wolverines football appears to have officially begun after Dylan McCaffrey elected to opt out of the season and seek a transfer. The writing is on the wall that Milton beat out McCaffrey for the starting gig after an extended offseason and one of the craziest years in college football history.
With just over a month remaining until Michigan’s schedule kicks off, let’s take a deeper dive into the film room and a look few appearances we have seen from Milton from his time in Ann Arbor.
We all likely know how talented of an arm that Milton has. He has bragged about being able to throw the ball 75-plus yards in the air without warming up. His raw arm strength is what led him to be a four-star prospect and a top-200 recruit coming out of high school.
That arm power has been flashed in limited college snaps on the field. Milton is 6-of-11 for 117 yards, a passing touchdown and two interceptions in his collegiate career.
Here is Milton’s lone touchdown pass of his career so far, a strike to Giles Jackson.
This was not a designed play, and that is part of what makes it so special. Harbaugh mentioned postgame how this play was pure instinct between Milton and Giles Jackson. Milton recognized Jackson was in single coverage and threw him open downfield. He referred to it as a plus play for Milton and a plus-plus play for Jackson. However, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis wasn’t nearly as impressed getting into it with Jackson on the sidelines after the score. In response, Harbaugh simply said, “I warned him of our policy that we don’t get upset about touchdowns.”
Milton is capable of making strong plays like this one. His spontaneity can be something to be praised as it can result in big plays like the above.
At the same time, it can also cause some foolish eras. Milton is all about making big plays and showing off his elite arm as much as possible. The issue with just letting it loose his accuracy can suffer and he can make the wrong choice going for the guy deepest downfield.
This was this 4th and 4 play in the 2019 game against Wisconsin. Milton came in as the Wolverines were getting blown out and made this critical error ending the drive:
The young quarterback has all day to throw and has a wide-open Nico Collins on the underneath route for a first down, extending the drive. Instead, Milton is fixated on the deep ball and misreads the defense in zone coverage, as the safety picks off the ball for a turnover. This is the kind of mistake that can’t happen if the Wolverines want to have a successful season.
A similar trend can be seen when Milton is under pressure shown in the Ohio State game in 2018. Watch what happens as he senses the closing defensive lineman and throws a ball into double-coverage, resulting in a pick:
This trend goes back into his high school days where plays like this one would be successful. But, this isn’t high school anymore. Defenders are quicker and smarter especially with some of the elite secondaries that come in the Big Ten.
It all comes with the natural transition to the collegiate level, and sometimes tossing the ball deep pays off even if it isn’t necessarily the smartest decision. Watch this 43-yard toss from Milton to Nico Collins in the same game:
Fans begged to see more of out of the Wolverines in 2019 in terms of taking more chances to big receivers like Nico Collins and Tarik Black. It’s a high-risk, high-reward situation that could make or break Milton as a quarterback.
But in 2020 the size isn’t still there in the wide receiving corps as Black transferred to Texas and Nico Collins has reportedly opted out of the upcoming season. Ronnie Bell (6-foot), Giles Jackson (5-9) and Mike Sainristil (5-10) will likely be the leaders in the group this season and don’t quite maintain the same stature of those before them, so Milton may not have the opportunity to just throw it up and hope his guy comes down with it this season.
One thing I love about Milton is the way he can maneuver his way through the pocket, extend plays, and make plays with his legs. This was partly a threat with Shea Patterson and even Dylan McCaffrey, but could be an even bigger change of pace with as talented an arm as Milton has.
Although this play results in a sack, look how he breaks multiple tackles:
He has this shiftiness about him in the pocket that makes him tough to bring down. Hopefully, he has learned to use that to his advantage more and throw the ball away instead of a massive loss of yardage, especially when up by 35 points.
A very underrated part of this quarterback competition could be how Milton and McCaffrey use their legs. This could be what won Joe Milton the job, especially with his abilities a sa runner near the goal-line.
Both of his rushing touchdowns in Ann Arbor came on goal-line plays. Look as he gets a naked bootleg left call and goes untouched into the endzone in the blowout win over Rutgers:
It may be the easiest house call of his career at Michigan. Both defenders on the edge bite on the fake and Milton waltzes in for an easy score.
Even when it’s not so easy, Milton adds an extra dimension with his legs in the redzone. This one coming against Ohio State on a read-option run on the goal line in 2018:
Neither Shea Patterson nor Dylan McCaffrey is getting to that edge. But Joe Milton has the speed and the athleticism to get by both and finish the drive with a score.
Everyone wants to talk about his arm strength and the potential that it shows, but I am more excited to add another element to this offense. We saw the impromptu play he made with his arm on that touchdown pass to Jackson above, but he can do it with his legs too. Watch as he flips the field on a designed run left and picks up the first on the right sideline:
After watching somewhat-dull quarterback play for the last couple of seasons, Milton will certainly provide that electricity that everyone is looking for and has legitimate star potential. He has so much God-given ability on the football field and makes some impressive and instinctual plays. It might wind up in some more frenetic quarterback play on both ends of the good and bad spectrum, but he’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun to watch in this offense.
The last time Milton was a starter he completed just 47.4-percent of his passes in his senior year of high school and threw 19 interceptions. But, he also racked up almost 4,000 passing yards and 35 touchdowns in the process. He can be one of the best quarterbacks in the country if he can overcome some questionable decision-making and accuracy issues. Which all come with time at the collegiate level.
As former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner put it while he worked out with Milton over the pandemic, “When a guy has superior arm talent, it’s hard for coaches to coach you sometimes. Like Brett Farve … why does Farve have the most interceptions in the history of the NFL, as talented as he is? Because you get arrogant with your arm strength, you get arrogant with your arm talent, and your mechanics waiver because you get comfortable, as things just come so easy for you.”
It’s all about game reps for Milton at this point as he will continue to learn what he can/can’t do with real mistakes that alter games. Hopefully things really do come easy for the redshirt sophomore quarterback as he will lead the Wolverines in year two for Josh Gattis’ offense.