Handy man

Last spring he led all Tennessee receivers with 12 catches in the three full-scale scrimmages. Last fall, however, he went 13 games without recording a single reception.

The reason is simple: The 2010 Vols couldn't depend on Matt Milton, despite his imposing 6-5, 205-pound frame and his eye-popping athleticism.

After playing quarterback as a senior at Mascoutah (Ill.) High School, he simply couldn't be counted upon to make the correct read or run the correct route. Worse, he couldn't be counted upon to catch the ball, even when it hit him right in the hands.

Milton found the transition to receiver very difficult, even though he played the position as a sophomore and junior in high school. Those experiences, he says, did not prepare him for the challenges he has encountered at the college level.

"My sophomore year wasn't anything (beneficial); I had like three catches," he recalled. "My junior year I played strictly receiver except for running a few reverses. My senior year our quarterback wasn't that good, so after the first game I went straight to quarterback - taking direct snaps and throwing (Tim) Tebow passes, stuff like that."

When he showed up on The Hill 13 months ago, Milton was light-years behind fellow freshman wideouts Da' Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter - both of whom had played receiver in high school. As a result, Hunter and Rogers flourished in Year One, while Milton floundered.

He has closed the gap in recent months, however, by working diligently on learning his assignments and improving his hands.

Conceding that his hands were awful last spring, Milton added: "They're way better. During the offseason I tried everything to get my hands better because, coming from high school, I wasn't used to catching the ball. I was taking direct snaps (at quarterback) the whole time.

"Coming in, these guys were throwing the ball at me all the time and I was like, 'Whoa! This thing's coming at me way faster than I thought.'"

To improve his receiving skills, Milton did all sorts of hand-strengthening exercises and ran routes for first-team quarterback Tyler Bray at every opportunity.

The results have been encouraging: Milton caught three passes for 35 yards and a touchdown in this spring's first scrimmage and two balls for 34 yards Saturday in the second.

"Matt has come a long ways," receivers coach Charlie Baggett noted recently. "He still has a long ways to go but we feel good about where he is.

"He's the kind of kid that has the size, the speed and he's a very smart kid. He just has to grasp a lot of the fundamentals of being a receiver, which he hadn't been full-time in high school. He's coming along a little bit slower than some of the other guys but I feel that Matt's going to be good."

Fellow wideout Rogers, a 6-3, 211-pounder, thinks so, too.

"He's a big, physical receiver like myself, except a little taller," Rogers said. "He's a good player who can make a lot of plays for us. He's had a great spring. Tremendous improvement. A lot of us have but Matt has made crazy improvement this spring."

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