BREAKOUT SEASON 2.0: ISU’s Tarique Milton returns strong after injury-riddled 2020 season

Oct 3, 2020; Ames, Iowa, USA; Iowa State wide receiver Tarique Milton (1) catches a pass and runs upfield during their football game at Jack Trice Stadium. Oklahoma takes a 17-13 lead over ISU into halftime. Mandatory Credit: Brian Powers-USA TODAY Sports

 Datrone Young’s eyes lit up at the mere mention of Tarique Milton.

 “That’s my roommate, man,” Young, a senior Iowa State cornerback said of Milton, a senior Cyclone receiver. “He’s been doing good. He made a big play today.”

 That was last Wednesday, but it could be most any day.

 ISU insiders will tell you that Milton’s game-day flashes of brilliance are mere glimpses of the greatness they see on the practice field, from day to day and season to season.

 The key for the shifty and speedy 5-9, 195-pounder from Bradenton, Fla.?

 Staying healthy — and that’s a so far, so good proposition this season after Milton endured a spate of injuries in 2020. He grew through the pain, but it took a mental toll.

 “It was hard,” said Milton, who played in just six games last season after shining in all 13 in the previous two seasons. “It was really hard because obviously, I had huge expectations last season. I wanted to be somebody completely different from what the end result was, but as I got through it and battled through it, I can say it really was a blessing in disguise because it really made me mature. It really made me mentally stronger than what I was and I feel like if that would have never happened, I never would have become the person I am today.”

 Milton’s always been a playmaker. As a freshman, he hauled in a pair of catches that spanned 40 yards or more. As a sophomore, that number of 40-plus yard gains mushroomed to five — including a pair of 73-yard touchdowns against Iowa and Louisiana-Monroe.

 2020 was supposed to be Milton’s breakout year, but instead, well, stuff happened. Weird stuff. 

 “It was crazy,” Milton said. “I got hurt in the bye week after Louisiana. Then, I missed TCU because of my ankle and then the week I came back for Oklahoma, my first play, I got hurt.”

 Ironically enough, that injury occurred after his first and only 40-plus yard gain of last season. From then on out, Milton was a shell of himself — taped up and sporting a sling while missing time and never remotely reaching 100 percent health by the end of a historic season.

 So did he feel snakebit?

 “Yeah, I mean, in a way, but like I said before, I think it was all planned,” Milton said. “I think it was just a blessing in disguise. Like I said, I would not be where I’m at today if that would have never happened. I don’t know what I would have been. This year, I feel like I’ve truly grown a lot due to what happened last year. I feel like I would have never gotten near where I’m it if that would have never happened.”

 Adversity spurs growth. You dig deeper. You take nothing for granted.

 Milton never has, but he’s propelled his attention to detail to new heights this fall.

 “I love that kid,” ISU offensive coordinator Tom Manning said. “Last year was really difficult on him. The year before, he’s playing on the outside; he had a really good year for us. The injuries last year, man, he had a really rough go at it, and really worked hard to get back. His growth has been from a mental side — he’s always been a mature kid, but, man, just the emotional side of it; going through all that adversity, his mindset is totally different (from) what I’ve ever felt (from) him before. It’s been really fun to watch him even through the spring, through the summer and even through the first couple days (of fall camp).

“He’s just on a mission. And I think the thing I appreciate about Tarique, is Tarique’s the same guy every day. But Tarique’s also a really, really intelligent football player. He’s the guy in practice when he asks you a question, it’s with great knowledge, it’s with great understanding of what’s going on. I think that’s the sign of a guy, number one, who is obviously an intelligent football player and has great football intelligence, but number two, a guy who’s extremely focused. In practice, he’s telling you exactly, ‘Here’s what happened. Here’s what the coverage was. Here’s what I did. Do you think that’s right?’ Just really impressed with him and, really, his leadership.”

 A healthy Milton only makes standout receiver Xavier Hutchinson, and tight ends Charlie Kolar and Chase Allen better. Milton stretches the field in unique ways for the Cyclones, but his contributions to the unit’s collective football IQ may be even more important.

 “He’s at the point in his career where he’s not asking, ‘Hey coach, is that route a 10-yard (route)?’” ISU run game coordinator and receivers coach Nate Scheelhaase said. “No, he’s asking, ‘Hey, what happens if we get this coverage on that route? What happens if the defense rotates this way? What should we do?’ So he provides a wealth of knowledge and experience that you only get with reps. Having that in the room has been huge for us, even going through fall camp, even battling against our defense, I think he’s able to help our entire group with what really happens out there on the field.”

 So call this season Milton breakthrough 2.0. Where breakneck speed meets hard-earned knowledge and the game, as they say, slows down. Not to a crawl, but to a mindful, fully focused step-by-step sprint.

 “I expect him to be probably our biggest breakout player on our offense,” said senior defensive lineman Enyi Uwazurike, who described Milton as one of his favorite teammates. “Last year, he dealt with a really big injury and I think he’s done a good job overcoming a lot of those things — overcoming adversity, really. But the year before that, some would say he had a breakout season, but me seeing him in practice and what he does, it’s like, ‘OK, that season was like a glimpse of what he CAN do.’ … What he does in practice is crazy.”

 That’s by design. Milton plans to leave a lasting mark in his final season. His eyes light up at the mere mention of it.

 “Like I’ve told my coaches, I’m trying to sell out this year,” Milton said. “I’m trying to give it my all. Leave nothing on the field. I feel like a lot of people would say in 2019 I had a big year. In my opinion, I wouldn’t say I did, because there was so much more I could have done. And it had to do with my work ethic and the way I was back then — immature. But this year I feel like I’m really gonna sell out and, like, dominate.”