I was on Team Dylan McCaffrey. After a couple frustrating years of Shea Patterson where it felt like Michigan was leaving yards and points on the table thanks to inaccuracies and wrong decisions, I was excited to see a quarterback with a seemingly high floor and the talent and intellect to allow the offense to take a step forward to where it needs to be.
Apparently the coaching staff had different plans in mind, as the 2020 season will instead be hands of redshirt sophomore Joe Milton. Now even though I was in favor of McCaffrey, I completely understand why fans are excited about Milton. An extremely gifted athlete, he surely offers the higher ceiling of the two options under center. He comes with plenty of question marks and a wide range of potential outcomes, but if there was ever a time to take a chance, this is it.
A former four-star recruit, Milton has a ton of ability, starting with a cannon for an arm to go with above-average mobility. Like McCaffrey, he has very little playing experience in Ann Arbor, though; in fact, he has logged just 11 passes thus far. But his only touchdown to date was an absolute laser, and it is not hard to imagine what he could be as a full-time starter.
What Joe Milton brings to the table
Since he committed to Michigan, fans have been hyping up Milton’s arm strength, which can seemingly hit over 70 yards in the air. This is elite-level arm talent and obviously is a huge asset that not many quarterbacks can boast. Predictably, this strength comes with some accuracy concerns, but until we see him play a couple full games it seems wise to hold back judgement. It is unlikely that he will not grow in this area, and he probably would not have won the job if he was consistently erratic in practice.
Milton’s success may come down to his ability to calibrate this weapon. There will be plenty of opportunities to launch the ball downfield or drill the ball into tight windows, but if he can learn to ease up a bit in order to connect on easier completions, then he has a chance to be one of the best Michigan quarterbacks in recent years. Even if his completion percentage is nothing spectacular, the passes on which he does connect have massive potential.
The other area that he can succeed is understanding how to run the ball. Too many times Patterson made the wrong read and handed the ball off when he had an opening on the edge, and this was something I think McCaffrey would have excelled at. Milton should be able to do well here too, as he has good quickness and is unlikely to be shy on keeps. But as a first-time starter, there could be a learning curve in terms of correctly reading a defense every time.
How the Michigan offense might look in 2020
Josh Gattis came to Ann Arbor promising speed in space, and in 2020 we may actually get to see what that looks like. While Milton is brand new to the starting role and will probably take a little time to settle in, there are really three main ways that having him as the signal caller can help the offense be successful this season.
The first is by accomplishing Gattis’s main desire, getting the ball into the hands of playmakers and letting them go to work. With running backs like Chris Evans and Blake Corum to go with Ronnie Bell, Giles Jackson, Mike Sainristil, A.J. Henning, and Roman Wilson, the Wolverines boast an army of shifty speedsters who offer Milton plenty of targets all over the field. His rocket for an arm can really be put on display here, whether it be through quick passes or deep shots downfield. Expect these player to rack up plenty of yards after the catch.
Secondly, having a quarterback that can beat defenses in multiple ways is important for the entire offense. Guys like Zach Charbonnet, Hassan Haskins, Cornelius Johnson, Nick Eubanks, and Erick All should not be overlooked, as Milton has the arm to be a prolific passer and can also keep defenses more honest by being able to use his feet. I assume Nico Collins is gone to the NFL, but the remaining receiving corps is still plenty talented without him and Gattis should be able to call any play imaginable with this cast of skill players.
Finally, Milton might be the best choice to put behind an offensive line with four new starters. Even if he limits the number of times he keeps the ball, he is quick enough to avoid pressure in the backfield and should be pretty mobile in the pocket to keep plays alive. He obviously can release the ball very quickly while still maintaining enough power to reach the target, and this could help keep the Michigan passing game productive even if protection is not great.
He also is likely to survive a few hits, which unfortunately is going to happen with an inexperienced offensive line. McCaffrey struggled with injuries during his time with Michigan, and while Milton could always get hurt as well, at least he is starting from a better place. The goal is not to plan on taking hits, but it is helpful to recognize this likely reality and have a capable body in the backfield.
All of this analysis is speculation, of course. There is very little collegiate film to break down and this offseason has left limited visibility into the practices of an already secretive program. On paper, though, Milton and the Wolverines seem to have a lot of potential. This is an extremely talented athlete who is surrounded by electric playmakers who have shown the ability to succeed when this scheme is working correctly.
Like any first-time quarterback, there are going to be some growing pains this fall. However, Milton has the perfect skill set for this offense — he is mobile enough to keep plays alive, fast enough to run when there is an opening, and strong enough to utilize this deep group of pass catchers all over the field. If he proves to be decently accurate, this could be the most prolific Michigan offense we have seen under Jim Harbaugh.