ATHENS, Ga. - There was no celebration from Tony Milton when Georgia coach Mark Richt confirmed Monday that the redshirt freshman had emerged from a pack of tailbacks competing to be Musa Smith's top backup. "Being number two is a great accomplishment, but I want more,'' Milton said.
Milton is 21, two or three years older than the normal redshirt freshman, but he is mature beyond those years. Considered a top high school prospect after rushing for 5,502 career yards to lead North Florida Christian to two state championships, Milton hit hard times when he failed to meet the standardized test score requirement following his 1998 senior year. Milton signed with Syracuse, which wanted him to enroll as a partial qualifier, but then he backed out when he decided he did not want to live so far from his Tallahassee, Fla., home.
Then came the hard times for Milton. Lacking a stable home life, Milton suddenly found himself hanging out at a local gym, drifting around town and at times sleeping in his car. Milton's break came when he followed his high school coach, Scott Queen, to Eagles Landing Christian Academy in McDonough, Ga. Queen gave Milton the two things Milton needed most - a roof and guidance. Spurred on by Queen, Milton focused on making his needed test score.
When Georgia hired former Florida State assistant Mark Richt as its head coach in December of 2000, Queen contacted Richt - whom he knew from Tallahassee. Richt then made Milton a surprise member of Georgia's 2001 signing class the following February. Redshirted last year as he was slowed early by a hamstring injury, Milton began to earn attention for his work on the scout team offense. Then came a shoulder injury that kept him out of spring drills, forcing Milton to miss a crucial opportunity to gain much-needed experience and play in his first game situation since 1998. Finally, Milton had to endure one more setback - a stress fracture in his left leg suffered in May. Milton had not disclosed that injury to anyone but the team's medical staff until this week. Having waited so long, there was no way Milton was going to let another injury stand in the way of his chance to play this season.
"You just take the pain and suck it up and keep going,'' he said. "There are going to be injuries in football.'' Milton spent about 90 minutes in the training room after taking a hit from a helmet to his thigh Monday, but again he said another sore spot on his body would not keep him off the practice fields.
At 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, Milton is a tough, compact runner with the power to break tackles and enough speed to pull away from linebackers. "I can run you over or make you miss,'' he said. If Milton had been given the No. 5 assigned to freshman Michael Cooper instead of his No. 9, he might draw quick comparisons to former Georgia standout Garrison Hearst.
Most importantly, Milton now has enough maturity to know he has to work hard on the practice fields and in the classroom. "From what I've gone through, I know nothing is given to you on a silver platter,'' he said. "I know I have to keep working hard.''
Milton's work ethic has made an impression on running backs coach Tony Pierce. "I'm glad he's starting to take control,'' Pierce said after Saturday's scrimmage. "That's what we need, a back to step up behind Musa.'' Added Pierce: "Milton did a nice job running. He was tough, especially after being out in the spring.'' Richt stresses that Milton has not yet won the race to be the first option behind Smith. Milton is only leading the competition, but if he stays healthy he is not likely to give up the position easily. Tyson Browning has great speed, Michael Cooper was a highly recruited running back and Ronnie Powell was the leading rusher in this spring's G-Day game.
But Milton has the advantage of truly understanding the opportunity at hand. Hungry for his first playing time in a real game in four years, Milton's wait is almost over. "With patience comes good things,'' he said. "I've been patient, and hopefully good things will come out of it.'' While freshmen celebrate their first days of independence in this first week of classes at the University of Georgia, Milton says his days of wasting time are in the past. "Being older, I'm more mature than some of the guys,'' he said. "I already did my partying early in life. I came here to get an education.'' The same Milton who didn't meet the NCAA's SAT requirement in 1998 made the Dean's List with a 3.73 grade point average spring semester.
Just as making second team at tailback didn't satisfy Milton's football goal, earning the 3.73 is not enough for the education major. Said Milton of his goal for this fall: "I want to get all A's.''
Class: Redshirt freshman
Size: 5-11, 190
High school highlight: Playing for North Florida Christian in Tallahassee, Fla., Milton rushed for 271 yards on 22 carries in the 1996 Florida 2A state championship victory, breaking a state high school record for all classifications. Later in the same day, future Tennessee running back Travis Henry broke Milton's record with 328 yards for Frostproof High. As a senior, Milton again led North Florida Christian to the 1998 Class A state championship.
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