TUSCALOOSA, Alabama – The question seemed harmless, however Alabama Coach Nick Saban must have felt a touch of insolence at his tricky reaction.
“You talked about it Jalen [Milroe] “I will gain more experience in the future,” said a reporter after the 56:7 victory on Saturday evening Middle Tennessee in which Milroe started as quarterback and scored five touchdowns. “How do you think tonight’s positive performance will help him moving forward into next week and beyond?”
“So you’re asking me to speculate and answer a question about how someone will behave in the future?” he said. “I do not really know. I love him. I think he’s fine. I know he is working hard to improve. He’s a good competitor. He will do everything to do his best.”
Then Saban grabbed a lemonade sitting on top of the podium.
“That’s a coke bottle,” he said, “it’s not a crystal ball.”
OK, but why the hostility? Milroe completed 13 of 18 passes for 194 yards. The Redshirt sophomore and former backup for Bryce Young was the first Alabama quarterback ever to throw three touchdowns and score two points in a game. And he had no turnovers. Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill raved about how “dynamic” he was as a runner and what “great touch” he added to his passes.
“It starts with No. 4,” Stockstill said of the Alabama offensive. “He really is something very special.”
Then why was Saban so reluctant to talk about Milroe’s future? He highlighted Milroe’s one major flaw. It was early in the game and the defense picked a play — Sonic Field Blitz — that Alabama was prepared for. But instead of ending the game – taking a throw – as originally intended, Milroe did nothing. The defense overran the right side of the line and ran back Jase McClellan was stopped for a 5-yard loss. Real attack JC Latham turned to Milroe and raised his hands as if to ask, “What is it?”
Looking perfect on paper, Milroe was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week. But apparently that wasn’t the whole story.
Nothing has really changed on paper. When the depth chart for Alabama’s main No. 3 vs. No. 11 game came out Texas As of Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN), Milroe was still listed alongside as a co-starter Tyler Buchner, Ty Simpson And Dylan Lonergan.
Milroe passed the practice test against Middle Tennessee.
Now comes the real test against a top-15 opponent, against his home state school, against a program he rooted for as a child and a school he once wanted to attend.
TO UNDERSTAND HOW Milroe came here — about to become the full-time starting quarterback of a playoff-caliber team — and started with the first jersey he ever bought. It was burnt orange, number 10, and had the surname Young written on the back.
Growing up in Katy, about two hours east of Austin, Milroe’s favorite player was Vince Young, the All-American and former first-round pick who led Texas to the national championship in 2005.
When asked Saturday if he has members of his extended family who support the Longhorns, Milroe sheepishly admitted, “Yes.”
And what about his immediate family?
Again Milroe said sheepishly, “Yes.”
So it’s no wonder that he initially chose Texas and its former head coach Tom Herman when choosing his colleges. The video of him announcing his commitment — hook-’em horn sign and all — is still up on his social media accounts as of summer 2019.
It’s time…🤫 pic.twitter.com/zrHSNS2F6e
— Jalen Milroe (@JalenMilroe) July 22, 2019
Alabama was on board and offered him a scholarship two and a half months before he committed to Texas – and three months after Plan A. Carson Beckreleased by the flood.
Then-offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian — now the head coach at Texas — recalled that Milroe came to a camp in Tuscaloosa and was impressed by his physical abilities as well as his intangibles. His father was a Marine and his mother was in the Navy. Sarkisian believed that military background played a role in Milroe’s work ethic and demeanor.
“We continued to chop wood, so to speak, in the recruiting process,” Sarkisian said. “And in the end I just felt like there was so much positivity. The physical skills he had: the arm talent, the legs, the leadership.”
A year after his commitment to Texas, Milroe abandoned his commitment to Alabama. He told 247Sports at the time that he would receive coaching training “for the future” from Sarkisian. Because Sarkisian was an OC in the NFL with the Atlanta FalconsMilroe said, “He knows what it takes to get to this point.”
But two weeks after securing that future by signing a letter of intent, Sarkisian accepted the job in, of all places, Texas.
“I kicked myself a little bit,” Sarkisian said. “But that’s part of it.”
Sarkisian said it often happens when you meet players and they end up on other programs.
“You cheer for them,” he said, “but not this Saturday.”
I’m speaking as the Texas head coach – who understands the expectations and even drives her a little – Sarkisian is more interested in limiting Milroe’s big-play abilities than reliving the past.
After looking at Alabama’s performance in Week 1, what concerned him the most was their offensive balance. Against Middle Tennessee, the Crimson Tide had 226 passing yards and 205 rushing yards.
Sarkisian praised Milroe’s arm and how he can “make any throw – off the platform, on the run, it doesn’t matter.” But the hardest thing they’ll have to do Saturday is contain Milroe as he escapes from the pocket, he said.
“He’s a top runner with the ball, with his speed and physicality,” said Sarkisian. “And he’s extremely competitive.”
Case in point: Milroe’s first carry of the season when a bad snap landed at his feet and he didn’t give up the play. He chased the ball five yards behind him, picked it up, shook off a would-be tackler and danced through a collapsing pocket. With a narrow passageway to traverse, he took off, broke through containment and evaded four other would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown.
McClellan wasn’t surprised. He had seen these improvisational skills in practice many times before.
“When he gets into space,” McClellan said, “that’s what he does.”
Some four hundred miles away, Milroe’s predecessor, Young, watched with pride. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft said he saw the work Milroe has done behind the scenes over the past two years and knew a moment like Saturday’s game against Middle Tennessee was possible.
“J-Mil is out,” Young said. “I’ve been able to watch him grow and continue to improve in every aspect – on the field and off the field, his understanding of the game and the offense, his command, everything on the field continues to grow. That’s my type. This is my brother. That’s why I’m really happy for him.”
Not long ago, Alabama had a quarterback like that—strong and athletic and a bit clumsy as a passer. He was from Texas and his name was also Jalen.
OK MAYBE we are ahead of ourselves.
Take a step back to last season and Milroe’s eight appearances, when he threw a total of five touchdowns and three interceptions. He completed just 58.5% of his passes and averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt.
Does a game with three touchdowns, no interceptions, 72.2% completions, and 12.9 yards per attempt erase all of that?
Does it count if it’s against Middle Tennessee and not the University of Tennessee?
The caliber of athlete Milroe will face against Texas will be very different. The windows he has to throw into will be much smaller and the players attacking him will be much larger.
Oh, and there will be a lot more at stake.
But do you know who is putting up with all this? Milroe.
Saban would have been proud that his quarterback didn’t give an inch during his postgame interview last weekend. Consistently, Milroe shifted the focus away from himself and back to the team.
How do you think you played?
“There are many things that we still need to improve as a team. We just want to be one percent better.”
How did you score on that bad snap?
“The other 10 guys on the field who helped me get to the end zone.”
What was it like when you found out you were starting?
“The space as a whole, we push each other. … I’m proud of everyone — that goes for Dylan, that goes for Eli.” [Holstein]that goes for Ty and Tyler.
The only question that bothered him was that some members of his family are still cheering for Texas. But even then, he insisted that didn’t make Saturday’s game any more or less special.
“Just another opponent on the schedule,” he said. “I’m just trying to improve every day.”
Talk about trusting the process.
He set a school record and said Monday: “It was a start.” He wanted to take credit for the win, of course: “But also look in the mirror and think about how I could be a better leader. How could I be a better passer? How can I be more efficient?”
Cornerback Terrion Arnold is one of Milroe’s closest friends on the team, so it was up to him to shed some light on his thinking. On Monday, Arnold said, “J-Mil is my LANK brother.”
LANK, Arnold explained, is an acronym that players came up with this offseason. It stands for, “Let all the naysayers know.”
That, Arnold said, is exactly what Milroe did against Middle Tennessee.
“People have doubted him and said he can’t play the position,” he said. “He’s put in a lot of work, so it’s nice to see him grow. And I look forward to seeing him succeed.”
Not even Saban’s Coke bottle knows what his future holds.