The Alabama defensive backfield has been an assembly line for NFL talent under Nick Saban.
He’s had seven defensive backs drafted by the NFL since 2009, and three of those were first-rounders.
Junior cornerback Dee Milliner is next in line. He steps in this season as an every-down starter after being an integral part of the Crimson Tide’s nickel package last season. He led Alabama with three interceptions last season, and tied for the team lead with 12 passes defended.
Milliner and the rest of Alabama’s re-tooled defense face a stiff challenge on Saturday night against No. 8 Michigan and quarterback Denard Robinson.
We caught up with Milliner for a Q&A this week:
How will your role change on this defense?
Dee Milliner: Being more of a leader and being a more vocal guy. I’m going to be on the field full time this year, in the nickel and the dime, and I’ve got to be the one helping those younger guys this year. I’ve also got to make more plays, and make more plays that change the tempo of the game.
What’s most important when you’re going up against a quarterback as elusive and dynamic as Denard Robinson?
DM: We’ve got to try and keep him contained the best we can, and try and change his mindset and not let him do what he wants to do.
Have you faced a quarterback that compares to Robinson in terms of his ability to break down defenses running the ball?
DM: Cam Newton is the closest guy, but I don’t think he can match the speed of Denard Robinson. That’s the difference. He’s like a punt returner at quarterback. He takes off running and has so many moves and can pass also. We’ve got to focus in. We can’t miss tackles, and also make sure we know our assignments on each and every play.
What will this defense’s identity be?
DM: If we come out and compete every game, play aggressive and play relentless football like we’re known to play, I think we’ll have one of the best defenses out there, just like we did last year. We’re the only ones that can hold ourselves back. We feel like if we go out there and play like we’re supposed to that no team can beat us, and if a team does make plays on us, it’s because of what we did, either with mental errors or missed assignments.
How many more of those mental mistakes did the secondary make two years ago when it was lacking experience as compared to last season?
DM: A lot. I’d say at least 40 or 50 more.
What’s it like to play on a defense that just keeps reloading every year regardless of how many great players you lose?
DM: When great players leave, we have other great players behind them. They’ve been waiting on their time, and they know what they’re doing. You get left behind here if you don’t.
The number of quality defensive backs to have come through there in the last few years is stunning. What’s it like living up to that standard?
DM: It makes me proud. They did it before me, and it makes me feel like I have to live up to them. There can’t be any drop-off, and I want to be even better. That’s the thing about our whole team. You never stop competing, and you never get satisfied.
Now that you’ve played for him a couple of years, what is it about Nick Saban that makes him so successful?
DM: He really is like a father to guys around here. You know he’s there for you, and you can go to him about anything. But he’s also like a football computer and having the film right there beside you. When we’re at practice, he knows just by where somebody’s standing exactly what the person is going to do. When he comes in and talks to us about receivers, he can tell what route a receiver is going to run if he’s on this foot or that foot. He knows everything. When you’ve got a coach like that, he makes things so much easier for you. It’s like he’s in the other team’s huddle.
What’s the surest sign that Saban’s about to explode on somebody?
DM: When he starts grabbing for that hat, you know he’s about to throw it. In the games, he’ll pull his headset down real fast and get this little grimace on his face. You know what’s coming next.
What do you enjoy most about playing football at Alabama?
DM: The winning. In high school, we had a good team, but we didn’t win to a point where they held you accountable if you didn’t win it all. If we win 10 games here, we don’t accept that because we think each year that we should be one of the teams playing the last game of the season and playing in the championship game.