Under the wing of Devin Gardner, Joe Milton ready to be Michigan starting quarterback

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

At the end of a workout earlier this summer, Devin Gardner, a former Michigan starting quarterback, and Joe Milton, who appears to be the next starter for the Wolverines, held a throwing competition.

Gardner, who hosts the “Forward Progress” podcast, also operates Young Go Getters, which develops young quarterbacks from on-the-field skills to their mental approach to football. He also spent considerable time this summer helping Milton develop and polish his game. They held their friendly competitions at the end of workouts with the young quarterbacks watching.

Michigan quarterback Joe Milton

“On the last throw, he beat me,” Gardner told The Detroit News.

That was fine with Gardner. He had won some of the competitions with Milton, lost others. What happened next was momentous.

“After he beat me, at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, all of it, he just burst into a backflip with no hands. Out of nowhere. No running start. Nothing. Just standing there,” Gardner said, laughing. “It was the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen, even more impressive than making all the throws. He stood there, jumped straight up in the air flipped backward and landed on his feet.”

The Big Ten announced Wednesday it will hold an eight-game season with a plus-one beginning the weekend of Oct. 23-24. Also that day, news broke that Dylan McCaffrey, the backup to two-year Michigan starting quarterback Shea Patterson, has decided to opt out this season and plans to transfer. That makes Milton, a junior, the likely starter this fall with Cade McNamara the backup.

Milton has been preparing for this since he arrived at Michigan in 2018. He has even taken leadership classes since coming to Michigan.

“When I was younger, I was never outspoken,” Milton said last December before the Wolverines' 35-16 loss to Alabama in the Citrus Bowl. "When I wanted to say something, I never spoke. Now that I am who I am, taking the leadership classes being in the role I am now, I speak when I want to speak. And I speak when it’s the right time to speak.”

His teammates have noticed the growth. 

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“One of the biggest things with him is more mental,” linebacker Josh Ross said Thursday. “He always had the talent. He always had the size, had the speed. It was just more mental with him. The biggest thing with him that I noticed is how much he really became a leader this year and how much he matured going into this next season. I think he’s going to have a fabulous year, and I’m glad he’s on my team.”

Receiver Giles Jackson said Milton has been more focused in his approach. But one thing that hasn’t changed is his powerful arm. He has worked on touch since arriving at Michigan, especially last year with quarterbacks coach Ben McDaniels and under the watchful eye of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis.

Milton said it's no sweat making 75- to 80-yard throws, and he has said the longest throw he’s made is 85 yards.

Devin Gardner played at Michigan from 2010-14.

“Joe has a strong arm, one of the strongest arms I’ve ever seen,” Jackson said during a Zoom call Thursday with reporters. “In practice one time, we had this deep ball, and I was probably like 70 yards out, and he just launched it. I thought he threw it late, but the ball beat me to my spot. I was like, ‘Whoa.’ He has an arm I’ve never seen before.”

Gardner does not hold back on how good he thinks Milton can be.

“He’s got the talent to be a No. 1 (NFL) pick at some point. I truly, truly believe that,” Gardner said. “There’s been plenty of quarterbacks that have come through and I try to be as honest and unbiased as possible, but Joe is that next guy where he’s going to be a household name.

“I’ve been pretty out-front and steadfast, and I haven’t wavered at all as far as his talent even before I worked with him. I thought he was a very talented guy, but after getting a chance to work with him, all the things people were saying, ‘Oh, he’s not accurate,’ and all these different things, those were untrue. Let’s just put it exactly how it is -- he’s got the arm talent, he’s got the arm strength. There’s no other quarterback in the country, NFL or pro, that if we’re just going out to a football field to throw footballs, that I would 100 percent say, ‘I’m talking this guy over Joe Milton,’ unless his name is (Kansas City Chiefs quarterback) Patrick Mahomes.”

The two worked two to three times a week during the summer, Milton towering over the younger quarterbacks with whom Gardner works.

Milton said last season he had been focusing on dialing down the heat on his throws and developing more touch.

“He is very talented as a passer and now he’s doing a good job of bringing it back some, not throwing every ball 100 mph, having even more touch,” Gardner said. “He had pretty good touch to begin with, but he’s been working on that a lot, and he’s done a great job.”

Is Milton better than Gardner was in college?

“Yeah. Without question,” Gardner said. “And that’s hard for me to say. But I’m a realist. I might be a more explosive runner. He’s a huge man. On my best day, I had a pretty strong arm, but I can’t hold a candlestick to this guy’s arm as far as strength goes. He really takes the cake with his strength.

Is Joe Milton better than Devin Gardner was in college? "Yeah. Without question,” Gardner said.

“It’s effortless the way he throws the ball. All the time I worked with him, and we worked pretty extensively, I didn’t see him throw one pass that wasn’t a spiral. Everybody knows, when you throw a spiral, it’s a lot easier to catch rather than throwing a 100 mph duck. Those are the little things that people ignore.

"You see him get in at the end of games, he throws interceptions and he’s taking chances, but we’re down 30. He’s trying to win the game, so you have to take chances, and people automatically criticize him and it’s very unfair for Joe who hasn’t had a chance to get extensive time where he’s not trying to come back from behind to no avail.”

Gardner draws back to his story of the Milton backflip to illustrate that another knock on Milton, that he’s not a great runner, is not fair, either.

“He’s not going to be the runner I was, just like I wasn’t the runner Denard (Robinson) was, but he’s not going to be a statue where he can’t get out,” Gardner said.

Gardner was the last black quarterback at Michigan, and Milton will be the next. Dennis Franklin was Michigan’s first black quarterback (1972-1974), setting the stage for those who followed, Michael Taylor, Demetrius Brown, Denard Robinson and Gardner.

Yeah, honestly, it is meaningful,” Ross said when asked about seeing a black quarterback at Michigan starting. “It’s definitely meaningful to me but not even just to go black, white. Just as my friend, just want to see my friend succeed and really thrive this year because he had the talent.”

Gardner is looking forward to watching Milton perform and take the torch from him in a sense.

“I was the last black quarterback, and now he’s getting his shot,” Gardner said. “And I think that’s really cool.”