Alabama QB Jalen Milroe’s rise from benched to irreplaceable


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — As his laser of a touchdown pass sailed toward the left corner of the end zone Saturday in Alabama‘s miraculous Iron Bowl win, Jalen Milroe‘s season flashed before his eyes.

In real time, amid the euphoria of the Crimson Tide’s 27-24 victory over Auburn, it was more like a blur.

But as Milroe traces back through the windstorm that he endured to get to where he is now, including being benched for the third game of the season, it’s almost as if it all transpired in slow motion.

The irony is that Milroe is the antithesis of slow motion. He’s one of college football’s most dynamic players — as well as one of its most improved players — and is the cornerstone of Alabama’s transformation into a College Football Playoff contender.

“Seems like a dream, not always a good dream, but a dream that I never quit believing would become a reality,” Milroe told ESPN. “From where I was, the way I was doubted — and even some people in this building [Alabama’s football complex] doubted me — it truly blows my mind to where it’s all led to, and the best part, where it’s led to for our team.”

Milroe, who is rarely without a big smile, slowly shook his head when thinking about all the things he was told he wasn’t along the way, even going back to his high school days.

“I was told I would never be the starting quarterback at Alabama,” he said. “I’ve been told I was not smart enough to play the position. I’ve been told everything. Even when I was named the starter at the beginning of the season, I don’t think a lot of people thought I would keep it, and if I did, that we were going to have a bad season. So, yes, I’ve faced a lot of obstacles. The main thing is the right people believed in me, here at Alabama and within my family, and I remained grounded in believing in who I am.

“That takes you a long way.”

Milroe has indeed come a long way, from being benched against South Florida in Week 3 to delivering one of the most memorable plays in Alabama’s long and storied history — a winning touchdown pass to Isaiah Bond on fourth-and-31 with the Crimson Tide’s national championship hopes hanging by a thread.

“That’s Jalen Milroe,” Alabama cornerback Terrion Arnold, Milroe’s best friend on the team, said. “That’s who he’s always been.

“He’s trusting himself now to be who he is. We’ve always trusted him, and you see the way he’s grown. But it’s a lot more than what you see on the field with the way he’s in here at 4:30 in the morning watching film and the last one to leave the practice field.

“People tell those stories about Kobe Bryant. I think people will tell those same stories about Jalen because all that hard work is paying off.”


TWO AND A half months ago, Milroe watched from the sideline at Raymond James Stadium when the epitaph was all but being written on Alabama’s season. The 34-24 home loss to Texas the week prior was still smoldering, and the doom and gloom only worsened as Alabama limped to a 17-3 victory over South Florida, with quarterbacks Tyler Buchner and Ty Simpson combining for 107 passing yards and 10 completions in a game that was tied at 3-3 late in the third quarter.

There was a collective “uh-oh” among the Alabama fan base, and the narrative reverberated around the college football landscape: After enjoying a wealth of riches at the most important position on the field — four consecutive starters who would make it to the NFL — Alabama didn’t have a quarterback.

Milroe, admittedly frustrated and disappointed over his benching, turned those feelings into motivation.

“It wasn’t just me. It was this whole team that everybody kicked to the side,” Milroe said. “But I also knew that if we were going to get to where we all wanted to get to, I had to play to a different standard. I had to look in the mirror and say, ‘How can I improve? How can I get better?’ And not just so I could win the position back. It wasn’t about me. It was about being there for everybody else around me, being the best version of me.”

As ugly as the South Florida win was and as vulnerable as the Crimson Tide looked offensively that stormy day in Tampa, it was a watershed moment. Including that game, the Tide have won 10 straight and get a shot at No. 1 Georgia on Saturday in the SEC championship game in Atlanta.

“Sometimes you’ve got to have something bad happen to figure it all out,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “After the Texas game, when we took him out, it was a real thunderbolt or whatever you want to call it, that if you want to be our quarterback, you have to be our point guard. He’s done that, and as he’s gotten better, so has our team.

“We wouldn’t be here without his transformation.”

At one point, Milroe wondered how many opportunities he was going to get this season, as it was clear there wasn’t a consensus on the Crimson Tide’s staff who their best option at quarterback was.

After throwing two costly interceptions in the Texas loss, Milroe was informed by Saban that Buchner and Simpson were going to get their shot against South Florida. Milroe said he probably didn’t handle the news as well as he could have that week in practice, but he kept coming back to one thing.

“It was bigger than me,” Milroe said. “If I wasn’t good enough, then give somebody else a shot. I looked at it as an experiment, but through it all, I was going to be a good teammate.”

Milroe said after being told he wasn’t going to play in the game, he made up his mind that he was going to make a difference. He led his fellow quarterbacks onto the field, was right in the middle of meetings on the sideline and was the first one on the field to congratulate Simpson after Alabama’s first touchdown in the third quarter.

“At the end of the day, it’s about winning,” Milroe said. “You come to Alabama, and that standard never changes, whether you’re the starting quarterback, backup quarterback or on the scout team.”

Saban and Milroe met the Sunday after the South Florida game, and Saban assured Milroe he was the starter going forward, especially after seeing the way Milroe stepped up as a leader despite not playing. It was also obvious to Saban at that point that Milroe’s skill set gave the Crimson Tide their best chance to win.

“You’re our guy,” Saban told Milroe. “We believe in you. There’s no need to look over your shoulder.”

Milroe said that Sunday meeting with Saban was the first time he truly felt like he was Alabama’s starting quarterback.

“I’d been splitting reps throughout the offseason. Even the Texas week, I was splitting some of the reps,” Milroe said. “But after that meeting with Coach Saban, I felt like I could play freely and not be restricted. It’s been so different because now it’s my team and now it’s my offense. Now it’s me, Coach Saban and [offensive coordinator] Coach [Tommy] Rees all jelling together.”

Since the South Florida game, Saban and Milroe have met twice weekly, on Mondays and Thursdays.

“Sometimes it’s five minutes. Sometimes it’s 20 minutes,” Milroe said. “Initially, you’d probably think it was just Coach Saban talking, but it’s also an opportunity for me to talk.

“A lot of times, we just talk about life. He’s helped me with some personal things, and he’s been there for me throughout the season. The main thing is that we both talk, what we see in games, feedback from games. He sees a lot of things I don’t see, and he’s always willing to listen if I see something.”


MILROE IS THE first to admit that he’s far from a finished product. He’s still prone to taking sacks and made a few head-scratching decisions against Auburn when he tried to throw the ball (after he was across the line of scrimmage) but had room to run.

But he’s been electric in clutch situations as the Tide chase their ninth SEC championship under Saban and what they hope will be their eighth CFP appearance. Since his benching, Milroe has accounted for 26 touchdowns and turned the ball over just five times. In his past four games, he’s accounted for 15 touchdowns and turned the ball over only once.

An emotional Milroe left the Jordan-Hare Stadium field last Saturday minutes after his incredible touchdown pass to Bond, screaming, “Let’s f—ing go. Give me the Heisman!” Milroe admits he “let my emotions get the best of me.”

That may be, but some of his numbers stack up with those of the Heisman Trophy favorites. Milroe is third nationally in passing efficiency rating (179.6), behind only LSU’s Jayden Daniels and Oregon’s Bo Nix. He’s averaging 10.6 yards per pass attempt (second nationally behind Daniels) and is one of only five Power 5 quarterbacks with more than 2,500 passing yards and 400 rushing yards. Milroe and Oklahoma’s Dillon Gabriel are the only FBS quarterbacks with 12 rushing touchdowns.

Asked Monday if Milroe compared to Florida Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow with his blend of size, speed and running ability, Georgia coach Kirby Smart said a better comparison would be current Baltimore Ravens star Lamar Jackson, who won the Heisman at Louisville.

“No offense to Tim Tebow, but this guy’s different,” Smart said. “Tim was a different running style, a very different running style in terms of what they did and how they did things. This guy is like when I used to ask my sons who they were playing with on the Madden game, and they would say, ‘I’m playing with the Ravens,’ and I would say, ‘Why are you playing with the Ravens?’ And they would say, ‘They’ve got Lamar Jackson and nobody can tackle him.’ Well, this guy is a bigger, physical version of that. He’s playing at a different speed than everybody else.”

One of the things the 6-foot-2, 220-pound redshirt sophomore has done best is generate big plays. In the 11 games in which he’s played, he’s been a part of 54 plays of 20 yards or longer, 20 going for touchdowns.

And as he’s settled into a rhythm, he’s made a lot more game-changing plays than he has plays that have hurt the team. Both of his touchdown passes in the third quarter against Texas A&M to rally Alabama from a 17-10 deficit came on third-and-long. He also jump-started Alabama in the Tennessee game with a 46-yard touchdown pass to Bond in the first minute of the third quarter after the Tide trailed 20-7 at the half.

Of course, the winner against Auburn was one for the ages.

“He’s seeing the game differently now, how you play the position and execute the plan, and I think that has helped him play more decisively,” Saban said. “If you’re always thinking, ‘I’ve got to make plays,’ that makes you force balls when you shouldn’t. It’s hard to have any consistency or rhythm on offense when you play that way.”

But when things do get a little helter-skelter, Saban said he hasn’t seen many quarterbacks better than Milroe, with his ability to accelerate and extend plays.

“When he has to just ad-lib, he’s fantastic. He’s off the charts,” Saban said. “But simply processing everything versus his ability to be so dynamic when things started to break down, they were working against each other sometimes. But now, they’re working together.”

Once he was given the keys to the offense, Milroe’s competitive toughness became even more apparent to the coaches. When he has made mistakes, he hasn’t allowed them to fester. Rees has tweaked some things with the offense, not simply putting Milroe in a position to run more, but tailoring the game plan around the quarterback’s strengths.

“In the passing game, we’re doing a lot of stuff, and Jalen has developed confidence in reading things and seeing things and taking what they’re giving him,” Saban said. “As much as anything, Tommy has done a really good job of figuring out the stuff Jalen is really good at and then saying, ‘Here’s how we can put him in a position to play more instinctively.'”

Milroe joked that his relationship with Rees has morphed from going on a first date with someone and trying to figure out each other’s interests to celebrating a yearlong relationship. Milroe said it is the first time he’s been coached by someone who played quarterback.

“I guess we’re about to go into a five-year relationship now,” Milroe quipped. “He’s helped me understand that I should see football through the lens of the offensive coordinator. That’s when the quarterback can really grow and really play at the level you need to play at.”

Rees is in his first season as Alabama’s coordinator after coming over from Notre Dame. Milroe’s eyebrows naturally raised when Alabama brought in Buchner, who played for Rees in South Bend, as a transfer after spring practice when nobody was named the starter.

“I wasn’t going to run from competition,” Milroe said. “My attitude, and I learned it from my dad, was to turn your weaknesses into your strengths and make all your strengths even stronger.

“If anything, bringing in another quarterback only made me stronger.”

Milroe clearly feels the commitment from the coaching staff and is playing with confidence and command. He’s not on pins and needles the way he was to start the season — which isn’t uncommon for quarterbacks trying to establish themselves — and the stage hasn’t been too big for him.

That stage is about to get bigger and a lot brighter against a Georgia defense that typically chews up and spits out opposing quarterbacks. Only twice this season has Georgia allowed a quarterback to top 200 yards in total offense, and the Bulldogs have given up a total of 11 touchdown passes.

“The best thing about Jalen is that he’s never changed,” Alabama offensive guard Tyler Booker said. “It’s just that the spotlight is on him more now because he’s playing out of his mind. I wouldn’t want to block for anybody else.”


BEING THE QUARTERBACK at Alabama isn’t for everybody, and Milroe’s support system has been extensive. He eats breakfast every Friday morning at the Waysider Restaurant (a Bear Bryant favorite) with head athletic trainer Jeff Allen, who has been with Saban all 17 of his seasons at Alabama. Milroe has also leaned heavily on defensive analyst Charlie Strong, a former head coach at Louisville, South Florida and Texas. Milroe calls Strong “Uncle Charlie.”

But nobody has been more important to Milroe than his family. His parents have never missed a scrimmage or a game, even those he didn’t play in. They will also be there next month when Milroe graduates from Alabama in business management with a concentration in entrepreneurship. He couldn’t promise his parents when he left Katy, Texas, that he would become a football star at Alabama, but he did promise them that he would get his degree.

“I still remember when Alabama and Coach Saban first offered Jalen. He came running downstairs to tell us and had tears in his eyes,” said his father, Quentin Milroe, who knows about commitment and resilience, having been part of the initial push into Iraq with the US Marines during the Iraq War in 2003. “It hasn’t been easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is, but it meant something to him to wear the ‘A,’ and that wasn’t going to change in the classroom or anywhere else just because he had to earn other people’s trust.

“Jalen has taught me and his mother [Lola] so much as parents, the way he’s handled this and the way he’s grown so much as a man, and not just as a football player, in Coach Saban’s program. You don’t learn from success. You learn from failure, and some people don’t really understand that.”

As has been his custom all season, Milroe waded through the masses of fans and teammates after Saturday’s game to find his parents and give them hugs. He gave his dad an extra big bear hug just before boarding the team bus outside the visiting locker room.

“As the phrase goes, ‘Pressure can bust pipes, or pressure can make diamonds,'” Quentin Milroe said. “You see which way Jalen has gone, but I don’t think he’s done.”

Arnold knew as much back in September when Milroe led a team meeting after the South Florida game.

“I remember his exact words: ‘It doesn’t matter what position we’re in. It doesn’t matter who’s out there playing. We have to go out there and support each other,'” Arnold recalled. “We’re all we’ve got and we’re all we need, and that’s something we live by.”

With his skeptics much less plentiful these days, Milroe is living his best life, as is an Alabama team that was pretty much left for dead not long ago.



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