Michigan football's Joe Milton era ready for takeoff: 'He's the alpha male'

Orion Sang
Detroit Free Press

Kyle Hayes still remembers where he was the first time he met Joe Milton.

It was February 2015, and Hayes — who had just taken over the football program at Olympia High School in Orlando, Florida — was hosting an introductory meeting with parents in the school's cafeteria when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a tall, lanky kid throwing a football. 



The unmistakable sound of the ball zipping through the air before making contact with a pair of hands was hard to miss.

Hayes couldn't contain his curiosity. He watched as the 6-foot-1, 170-pound kid continued to play catch. And when he was finally done shaking hands with parents, he walked over, introduced himself and asked the kid what position he played.

"I’m a wide receiver, coach," said 14-year-old Joe Milton.

Michigan quarterback Joe Milton high-fives fans as he runs down the tunnel before the Middle Tennessee State game at Michigan Stadium, Saturday, August 31, 2019.

When reached by phone Wednesday, Hayes recalled the moment with clarity and vigor. Moments earlier, he had learned that his former pupil — who grew into a blue-chip 6-foot-5 quarterback under his watch — would play this fall in the Big Ten's rebooted college football season. And he also had read that Dylan McCaffrey, who was expected to compete with Milton for Michigan football's starting job, reportedly was opting out and transferring.

Indeed, Milton is poised to take over for the Wolverines this fall, after waiting and learning and developing during his first two years in Ann Arbor. 

"He would call and we would talk about plays," Hayes said. "He’d talk about throws and reading the defense and all that stuff. Those two years actually helped him mature.

"He’s going to make some mistakes, but I think he’s really going to exceed people’s expectations this year.”

Becoming a complete quarterback

Giles Jackson, a sophomore receiver, knows Milton better than most. They work out and watch film together. And they live "probably 30 seconds" apart. 

Last season, Milton and Jackson connected for a 23-yard touchdown against Rutgers — Milton's first passing TD of his career and Jackson's first career TD. 

But when asked about his quarterback's arm, Jackson had a different story in mind.

“Joe has ... one of the strongest arms I’ve ever seen," Jackson recalled. "In practice one time, we had a deep ball, I was probably 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.' ”

There have been similar stories told during Milton's two years at Michigan, including tales of balls thrown so hard that players just assume bat down a pass to preserve their fingers.

“I just try and stay away from him," Michigan cornerback Lavert Hill said in 2019.

His physical abilities are off the charts, and Milton himself has told reporters he can throw a football 85 yards — and as far as  76 yards without warming up. 

Hayes noticed Milton's arm immediately during their encounter in Olympia's cafeteria. And later that year, during the team's second day of spring practice, Hayes figured he'd test it out by asking him to throw a 10-yard out — one of the toughest throws in football.  

"He ripped that thing with no problem," Hayes said. "I knew right then he was our quarterback.”

Quarterback Joe Milton, a four-star prospect out of Orlando. He's 6-5, 220 pounds, and is known for his big arm, but also his potential athleticism.

Milton, who played his freshman season farther south at Pahokee, developed into a four-star prospect in his three years at Olympia, despite his completion rate never eclipsing 50%.

Some incompletions were due to drops, but it was evident he needed to learn the intricacies of his position.

“Unfortunately in high schools, especially here in Florida, we don’t have the resources that some places have when it comes to training specific positions," Hayes said. "Sometimes, fundamentally and technique wise, kids are left out to dry. I hate to say it that way, but it is what it is. We don’t have those resources where some schools can bring in a quarterback trainer or guru of some sort.

"We’ve got some coaches that played and we’re doing the best we can. I think that was the biggest thing with him as far as his accuracy. I think a lot of it had to do with simple fundamentals and technique, footwork. When to throw the ball, those type of things.”

Milton showed a willingness to learn.

He took most of his snaps out of the shotgun formation during his first two years as the starter. But in the spring before his senior season, run-game coordinator and offensive line coach Jimmy Sheridan asked Milton to learn to take snaps under center as Olympia tweaked its offense.

A week later, Sheridan drove by Olympia's stadium and saw Milton practicing snaps with the starting center. And as Sheridan tells it, Milton also reached out to Jim Harbaugh and then-quarterback coach Pep Hamilton during his spring break for advice on how to play under center. 

"If somebody tells him he needs to do something," Sheridan said, "he attacks it."

Milton brought that same disposition with him to Ann Arbor, where there were signs of improvement throughout his first two years.

After playing sparingly during his first season and redshirting, he carved out a larger role in 2019 and earned time as Shea Patterson's backup after McCaffrey was injured. Against Rutgers, Milton completed 3 of 4 passes for 59 yards, including the touchdown pass to Jackson. After the win, both Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis praised Milton's improvement, likening him to a pitcher who had expanded his repertoire. 

“He’s worked on it," Harbaugh said in October 2019. "There are different ball flights, different appropriate throws. Not everything is a line-drive fastball. There's a lot of elevation, there's medium elevation, there's shorter throwing motion for the shorter throws to make a catchable ball for a runner.

"It's not an easy thing to do. We can all think of quarterbacks throughout the history of football that never got to understand throwing with touch or throwing the fastball when needed — the appropriate throw for the appropriate down. He's working really hard at it, and it's coming along really well. Definitely has a lot of arm talent."

'He used to only have one pitch'

In the year since Harbaugh's comments, Milton has continued to work to improve his accuracy and touch.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, he reached out to Donovan Dooley, a renowned quarterback trainer based in Michigan. And during their first training session, Dooley came away impressed by Milton's size and arm strength. But he also took note of Milton's improvement as a passer.

“He used to only have one pitch, which was a fastball," Dooley told the Free Press, "but now he’s able to anticipate, throw catchable footballs, and understanding how he has to be attached and assertive in coverage."

During the offseason, Dooley and Milton worked on changing speeds, ball placement and routes — from digs and comebacks to corners and vertical shots. And the process helped Milton become a more complete quarterback.

“You want to throw catchable footballs," Dooley said. "They don’t have to be 50, 70 yards in the air. Just being able to throw to a landmark, throwing a ball to a spot, not a guy, and give him the opportunity to catch the football. He’s made leaps and bounds with that."

"People have always been enamored with how far or how hard he can throw the football. But deep balls are a low percentage part of the passing game. You’re only going to throw three or four of those a game. He's definitely worked on the pace of his football and tempo on his drops and footwork."

'You have to be able to lead people'

Milton never had to beg for his teammates' respect at Olympia. It always came naturally, according to his coaches.

"People feed off of his energy," Hayes said. "He’s a very likable guy. I think he’s a natural-born leader. Some people have it. He doesn’t have to fake that. He’s charismatic. People gravitate to him."

"Joe really doesn't need to lead with his lips," Sheridan said. "He leads with his actions. He's the alpha male — he's the type of person people want to be around. He doesn't say a whole lot, but people just want to be around his presence. He has that gift."

Hayes watched as Milton led Olympia to a slew of comeback victories. He saw how Milton encouraged teammates on the sidelines and in the huddle during timeouts — sometimes to the point of being shushed so Hayes could  get the play-call in. And he wondered whether those traits would carry over to college, as Milton worked his way up the food chain. 

By all accounts, Milton has done just fine. He befriended classmates and veterans alike. He even took leadership classes in which he tried to learn from the failures of bad leaders.

“He always had the talent," Michigan linebacker Josh Ross said Thursday. "He always had the size, the speed. It was just more mental with him. The biggest thing with him that I notice 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.

“(He's) somebody that people can count on. And I'm not saying he wasn't that guy — it's just gotten a lot better.”

Naturally, there are still questions about a quarterback who is 6-for-11 passing in his career, with 117 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Milton has not played a lot, and that should give enough pause to anyone  ready to declare him a star. 

And yet, those around Milton believe he can handle the pressure.

Michigan quarterback Joe Milton passes at the spring game Saturday, April 13, 2019 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.

“Joe feels prepared," Dooley said. "He feels like this is his best year in terms of understanding the playbook in its entirety. He loves to ask questions. He seeks answers with his coaches. Whether we’re doing film or whatever or just chalk talk, protections, hots, he’s on it."

“I think he’s just more focused, I’d say," Jackson said. "You could tell, as soon as this offseason, he was a whole different person. He was more serious, more focused. You could tell he wanted to play, and he was just more locked in.”

When Milton last spoke with reporters, he was in Orlando, the city where he first displayed his potential as a quarterback. Michigan was in town for the Citrus Bowl, and Milton's career was nearing a crossroads. Then-starter Shea Patterson was set to exhaust his eligibility following the bowl game. And for the first — and perhaps only — time in his career, Milton was getting ready for his chance to earn Michigan's starting job.

Towering over reporters, Milton fielded a question about whether he would consider transferring if he lost the starting competition.

"Nothing’s been in my mind to go somewhere else," he said. "Staying patient and humble, it’s going to come one day."

As it turns out, Milton was right.

His time is now. 

"You’ve learned and you’ve had time to sit in class and all that, now it’s your time behind the wheel," Hayes said. "Let’s go.”

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletterThe Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Michigan Wolverines content