Milton, Klubnik ready to take center stage at Orange Bowl

Full Screen
1 / 4

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Joe Milton III (7) throws a pass during a practice session ahead of the 2022 Orange Bowl, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, in Miami Shores, Fla. Tennessee will face the Clemson Tigers in the Orange Bowl on Friday, Dec. 30.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Joe Milton has started three games for Tennessee. Cade Klubnik hasn’t started any for Clemson.

Meet the starting quarterbacks for the Orange Bowl on Friday night, when Tennessee (10-2, No. 6 College Football Playoff ranking, No. 6 AP) takes on Clemson (11-2, No. 7 CFP, No. 10 AP).

The teams got here largely on the arms of others — Hendon Hooker led Tennessee most of the way before a season-ending injury, and DJ Uiagalelei was Clemson’s quarterback until Klubnik took over in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game and never looked back. And for both Milton and Klubnik, the final game of their 2022 season could become a springboard for them entering 2023.

“In life, you have to learn,” Milton said. “On my mirror back in Knoxville, Tennessee, I have a saying that says to never stop learning because life never stops teaching. I pretty much look at that every day when I brush my teeth and wash my face. It’s one of the things I cherish because it’s life — things are going to happen. You’re going to face adversity. I faced adversity twice and I learned a lot from it.”

Milton was once the starter at Michigan; it lasted five games. He transferred to Tennessee and became the starter; that stint lasted three games. Another chance has come his way, and what he does Friday may go a long way toward determining who’ll be leading the Vols next year.

“I feel like he’s really stepped up and brings the team together,” Tennessee receiver Ramel Keyton said. “He makes sure that we focus. He’s serious and you can tell he’s trying to get stuff done trying to win. I feel like that makes everybody more focused and makes everybody ready to play for real and ready to win.”

There’s no question who Clemson’s future at quarterback is. Klubnik’s time has come.

It was obvious in the ACC title game when he led the Tigers past North Carolina, and it became official when Uiagalelei entered the transfer portal — which was not a big surprise. The Tigers expect to be loaded in 2023, especially on offense, and Klubnik can't wait to get started.

“My confidence comes from preparation,” Klubnik said. “And I love the game. So, when I get out there and play, I think another switch just kind of happens that I don’t really have any control over. It just kind of happens. Just another part of me kind of comes out and I just go out there and play.”

A year ago, he was just getting to Clemson as an early enrollee. Now, he’s an Orange Bowl starter.

“I didn’t see this coming,” Klubnik said.

He took over for Uiagalelei on Clemson’s third drive of what became the 39-10 win over North Carolina in the ACC title game, completed his first 10 passes, led the Tigers to touchdowns on each of their first three drives with him in the game and finished 20 of 24 for 279 yards.

“The guy has a bunch of swagger,” Clemson defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “A strong arm, quick release and he’s pretty athletic. He really is. We know we’ve got to be at the top of our game to be able to contain this guy. He looks like the future of Clemson football to me.”

Milton is 34 of 54 this season for 720 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions.

“He’s been extremely intentional in his preparation,” Volunteers offensive coordinator Joey Halzle said. “It hasn’t been too big for him. He hasn’t changed who he is, but in the same breath he understands his new role of having to lead this team. He’s done a really good job of not having the moment be too big for him.”


More AP college football: and Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: