'Don't sleep on Joe': Milton and his powerful arm move into key role for Michigan

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor – The backup to the backup doesn’t always get the benefit of prime practice reps, but this week Joe Milton has had more opportunities to put his powerful arm on display against Michigan’s defense.

Milton, the Wolverines’ third-string quarterback, was elevated to Shea Patterson’s backup heading into Saturday’s game against Rutgers at Michigan Stadium after backup Dylan McCaffrey suffered a concussion from a brutal hit during the Wisconsin loss.

Joe Milton

The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Milton is extremely athletic, and teammates and coaches have spoken primarily of his strong arm. In fact, Milton has done so, as well. Speaking to a small group of reporters during Michigan’s spring trip to Paris in 2018, Milton was funny and engaging and confirmed his arm strength.

“The furthest I threw one was 85,” Milton said at the time. “On a good day it’s probably like 85. Regular basis 75 or 80. They wanted me to (pitch) in high school, but my high school coach told me no. The ball is too little for me.”

When McCaffrey was told during that interview session what Milton said about his throwing distance, he laughed.

“It looks pretty easy for him,” McCaffrey said. “I can throw the ball far enough. Get the ball out on time, you’re good.”

And that is what the Michigan coaches have been working on with Milton since he arrived in 2018 – touch and accuracy.

“Joe’s been getting plenty of reps this week. Joe’s level of preparation has obviously increased under the situation we’re in,” Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said Wednesday. “Obviously Joe’s blessed with an extremely talented arm. He’s really improved as a passer with touch. It’s not just always having zip on the ball. When you have the (quarterback) room we have, it’s about how equally can you prepare the guys to get the right amount of reps they need to be able to turn them into game reps.

“That’s an advantage this week that Joe has. He’s getting a chance to go out there and not just run as a (backup). He’s getting a chance to go out there and take some live reps under fire against our defense. We’ve done a lot more competitive periods this week, kinda getting back to an old-school way of just competing against each other, good on good, speed on speed. Joe’s progressing.”

Joe Milton

Milton has played in six career games and last season was 3-for-4 for 58 yards in four games. He had a 9-yard run and attempted a pass at Middle Tennessee State in the opener this year and was 0-for-2 at Wisconsin and had an interception.

Patterson had been dealing with an oblique injury suffered in the season opener, and had X-rays after the Wisconsin game, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said, that were negative. Patterson and McCaffrey took several hits from the Badgers.

“We’re a little banged up at the quarterback position,” Gattis said. “To see (Milton) get those reps, it’s been really good. Obviously, Shea has been out there practicing. I think he’s preparing. There’s a level of remorse that he has a little bit as far as some of the pressure that’s been applied to him, as well as some of the pressure that he’s kinda put himself under. I believe in Shea. I believe in every one of our players.

“Shea has 100 percent of my support just like anyone else has. Joe has my support. It’s not just one person. It’s everyone. It’s myself, it’s our offensive unit, it’s everyone collectively together. We’re never going to point a finger. We all have to help someone play better. I have to help these kids play better and these kids have to help each play better. We will be as good as we stay together.”

Milton arrived with considerable acclaim. But it is his arm strength that still draws attention, even from his teammates.

“He’s got the strongest arm I’ve seen in my life,” Josh Uche, a Michigan linebacker said this week. “He’s a gamer, man. Don’t sleep on Joe.”

But again, it’s not just about arm strength. Gattis said they’ve worked with Milton on perfecting football work and on-field presence and poise while recognizing defenses.

“In the pocket, working his pocket fundamentals,” Gattis said. “As a young quarterback you always come in, the first thing that surprises you is the rush. Especially it can be challenging versus our (defense) with all the pressure looks they present in practice and all the man coverage where things happen fast. Joe’s really improved in his pocket practice.

"Now it’s about carrying over everything, being the general in charge of the offense and being able to lead and direct others around him. He’s gotten better at that. As a young quarterback you like where he is, because he’s on progress.”

Rutgers at Michigan

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: BTN/950

Records: Rutgers 1-2, 0-1 Big Ten; No. 20 Michigan 2-1, 0-1

Line: Michigan by 28