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Did Joe Milton do enough to stake a claim as QB1 for Tennessee?

Quarterback Joe MIlton faced a true test against the Clemson Tigers Friday night. Did he pass?

Capital One Orange Bowl - Clemson v Tennessee Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Friday night’s Orange Bowl presented a huge opportunity for Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton.

A chance to stake his claim as QB1 for the Volunteers heading into next season.

With Hendon Hooker sidelined with a knee injury in Tennessee’s loss to South Carolina back in November, Milton stepped into the starting lineup for the Volunteers to close out the season. He led Tennessee to a victory over Vanderbilt in the season finale, but that game was played in the rain, and Milton was not tasked with doing much for the Volunteers offense. He completed just 11 of 21 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown in a 56-0 rout of a Commodores team that finished with a 5-7 record, and did not qualify for a bowl game.

Squaring off with a top ten team in Clemson, who won the ACC Championship, in the Orange Bowl provided a much stiffer test.

One that Milton largely passed on Friday night.

The quarterback completed 19 of 28 passes for 251 yards and 3 touchdowns on Friday night, as the Volunteers topped the Tigers by a final score of 31-14. The win propelled Tennessee to their first 11-win season since 2001, when they finished the season 11-2, and ranked fourth in the nation.

But beyond Milton’s numbers, was how he played the position, and answered some of the questions facing him for both Friday night, and beyond.

Perhaps the best way to frame the discussion comes courtesy of our friends at Rocky Top Talk, who posed the questions that Milton needed to answer against the Tigers:

Is he the guy that we saw to start 2021? The guy that couldn’t hit a deep shot for anything — the guy that looked uncomfortable — the guy that got benched? Or is he the guy that we saw this year in mop-up duty? Milton was fantastic when he had the opportunities in 2022, although it did come against far more inferior talent. But still, he appeared to be more accurate with the football and looked much more in control of the offense. We didn’t really see much against Vanderbilt, considering that they played much of that game in the rain. Friday night will be a different story.

Consider those answered in Milton’s favor, as he looked more like the player Volunteers fans saw this season, as opposed to the quarterback who could not connect on some deep throws last year, particularly in a game against Pittsburgh. Milton eventually was replaced by Hooker due to injury, and Hooker took control of the offense for both 2021, and the first part of 2022.

But Milton certainly hit the deep shot plays on Friday night. After the Tigers reached the end zone to cut Tennessee’s lead to 21-14, the Volunteers came right back, with Milton connecting with Ramel Keyton on this 46-yard touchdown to push Tennessee’s lead back to 14:

But more importantly for Milton, and the Tennessee offense in 2023, might be thes other two touchdowns he threw in the game. First was this touchdown to open the scoring. The Tigers drop eight into coverage, playing four deep in the secondary with four defenders underneath. The Volunteers run a post/dig combination on the left side, and watch as Milton uses his eyes to influence the safety to break on the dig route. That’s when the QB throws an absolute strike on the post route for the game’s first touchdown:

Then there was this touchdown at the end of the third quarter, which again comes thanks to some manipulation from the quarterback. MIlton is looking for Squirrel White on the post route from the left side of the formation, but the safety in the middle of the field is betting on Milton throwing that route. He breaks on the route, and MIlton uses a pump fake to influence him. Once the safety breaks, MIlton resets and hits the post route behind him, away from the leverage of the cornerback in coverage:

This is elite-level quarterback play, and a throw that could give head coach Josh Heupel confidence in Milton to start the 2023 campaign.

Of course, starting the season out as QB1 — and staying there — is the taller task. After all, Milton began the 2021 season as Tennessee’s starter, before giving way to Hooker. But if Friday night was any indication, Milton has the talent, and experience, to not just start out as QB1.

But to stay there.