Well, a good wariness will sigh and crumble in the presence of a charismatic quarterback, so do mark down Michigan as must-see from here, such as Nov. 14 against Wisconsin. Well into a Saturday night in Minneapolis, with the temperature below 30 and the extremities asking for some blood flow even in an indoor press box, a charismatic quarterback did pop up in a Zoom interview square after doing what he had done on the field. He did begin speaking. A voice inside a listener’s head did say, Damn.
After a 49-24 win over Minnesota, Joe Milton started talking about how he teared up before his first start, a reminder that 6-foot-5, 243-pound quarterbacks never used to do that in the olden days but only because that was a weaker culture full of men too fretful about perception to acknowledge such normalities.
“To me, in the beginning, I was fine,” he said. “Like, pregame, I was fine. I was listening to my music, so I was fine. And then when I got in the locker room, I took my headphones off. You know, I started tearing up because it’s real and it’s time to prove to the world who I am and what I can do. In the beginning, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, all right, it’s game time.’ And then when I got in the locker room, it was like, ‘Oh, it’s real.’ ”
It came as a real and detailed and enamoring quotation from the new quarterback of one of the more cloistered of the country’s array of football programs, one not keen style-wise on sharing its players’ rich array of human stories. It erred only in the use of the word “world,” seeing as nobody cares outside one wacko country. But it came from a third-year student who had just steered around smoothly a team that scored 42 points on offense even while missing three field goals. Milton went 15 for 22 for 225 yards and one touchdown with zero interceptions, rushed eight times for 52 yards and another score and handled the offense with a word Harbaugh dragged out for beautiful use: “aplomb.”
“He had a great understanding,” Harbaugh said. “He just went in with a great understanding of his job and everyone else’s.”
“I didn’t, like, panic, as a first start,” Milton said. “I wasn’t scared.”
“A great feel for the offense,” Harbaugh said, calling Milton “cool as a cucumber,” long the vegetable of choice for coolness.
It could make you start to think about how coaches, even those with steep knowledge of the position of American football quarterback, never really know about a quarterback until the guy gets out onto the field in the fray, which explains how, say, Kyle Trask got going at Florida in early 2019 only after the starter got injured and how, well, sixth-rounder Tom Brady . . .
Whoa. If you would like to stop here and note that all this occurred against Minnesota, which does not have the defense of, say, Wisconsin or Ohio State, no one should berate you just because you haven’t scurried over to the lure like some of the dopey rest of us. It’s one game, apparently. But after the Harbaugh era and its five previous main quarterbacks with varying levels of something that always looked like sufficiency — Jake Rudock, Wilton Speight, John O’Korn, Brandon Peters, Shea Patterson — this Michigan offense looked and felt just that layer more lucid. And that’s to start a second season coordinated by a 36-year-old guy with an opulence of charisma himself, Josh Gattis, who already has coached under Butch Davis, Bill Cubit, James Franklin, Nick Saban and Harbaugh.
So if you don’t mind even just pretending to bite, who is this Milton? He began life in Pahokee, Fla., on the western edge of Palm Beach County, slapped up against Lake Okeechobee, a full hour and a headache from Palm Beach itself. It’s 10 miles and a skip from Belle Glade, famed town of future football stars. It’s a place of “ink-black soil” that the locals dub “muck,” according to the tourism section, and is “fertile ground for sugarcane and sweet corn.”
Milton moved to Orlando by his high school days. He emerged in that 2018 recruiting class, whose top two players according to Rivals were Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State star quarterback Justin Fields, who have been okay as collegians. In the dual-threat quarterbacks section, which Fields topped just ahead of future UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Milton stood 11th. Rivals rated him 200th overall among players, tucked in a cluster of dual-threat quarterbacks between Dakereon Joyner (now a wide receiver at South Carolina) and Jace Ruder (a backup at North Carolina).
Waiting awhile at Michigan, Milton referred to “seething or no seething” — it sounded like days of each, which sounded human — and said, “I always want to work, get better, improve.” Harbaugh found most compelling “the accuracy of the throws, the touch of the throws.” Nine people caught his footballs Saturday night, the way things should work in the year 2020, and Milton said: “It feels great for me because I don’t have to do too much. I’ve got a lot of playmakers. . . . I just execute the play.”
Yeah, so even amid the Big Ten starting its engine and Rutgers breaking through at Michigan State and Indiana deserving to upset Penn State and then doing so oddly and Oklahoma State continuing to rise quietly and Alabama crushing Tennessee again but suffering a season-ending injury to great wide receiver Jaylen Waddle and LSU finally winning again and BYU still winning out there in the night, maybe this charismatic Milton guy made you look. Some of us did get caught.