Jalen Milroe is loving life as Alabama’s quarterback these days, cherishing the tutelage and encouragement he is receiving from first-year Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Tommy Rees.
To understand why, you have to understand Milroe’s motivation — much of which comes from what Milroe says Rees’ predecessor as OC at Bama, Bill O’Brien, once told him.
Asked during a press conference in advance of Monday’s College Football Playoff semifinal between No. 4 Bama and No. 1 Michigan how often he had been discouraged from playing the quarterback position, Milroe pulled no punches.
“All my life, even when I was in college,” he said. “Shoot, my own offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien told me I shouldn’t play quarterback.”
Asked a follow-up question about his reaction to O’Brien’s assessment, Milroe replied: “How would you feel if I told you you suck?”
When the reporter replied that he wouldn’t like it, Milroe added: “OK, then. That’s exactly how I felt. The biggest thing for me (was to) be true to myself and stay the same. Nothing changed about me. The only thing that changed was that I had opportunity, and I seized it.”
Indeed, he did. Rees’ coaching and patience following early struggles that led to Milroe’s one-game benching vs. South Florida on Sept. 16 have paid huge dividends. Milroe enters Monday’s game having led 12-1 Alabama to the SEC Championship with a win over then-No. 1 Georgia and now just one win over Michigan away from playing for the National Championship.
Milroe has produced the remarkable total of 35 touchdowns — 23 passing and 12 rushing — all the while listening to Rees tell him repeatedly that he has what it takes to be special at the position.
“Our job as teachers and coaches is to bring the best out of our players and bring the best out of what they can do, and a huge part of that is how do you reach those guys,” said Rees, a former quarterback at Notre Dame who came to the Crimson Tide after serving as offensive coordinator for the Fighting Irish. “That’s a challenge when it’s a new player with a new coach. You try to find out kind of what makes them go off the field, what makes them go on the field, what are the things that give them confidence, what are the things that can bring the most out of them.
“For Jalen and I, the relationship building over months has been really positive. He’s an unbelievable human being — an unbelievable kid. Like the way he’s able to face adversity, the way he’s able to push through things, the standard he holds himself to. … Those things probably started with his parents. He’s done an unbelievable job throughout the season of staying true to that.”
When it comes to Milroe and Rees, it’s obviously there is deep mutual appreciation for each other.
“This is the first time I’ve had an OC that played the position, that played the quarterback position,” Milroe said. “I see quarterback in the lens of him as a play caller. I think I’m very receptive of his coaching because he played the position, played at a high level at Notre Dame. … He’s able to coach the position, and I’m able to absorb it as much as possible.
“It’s been great having Coach Rees here. Honestly I’m trying to build as much as possible and be the best quarterback I can be.”
That includes becoming more of a total QB who thinks pass first and run second. The results have been phenomenal. Milroe has shown a knack for completing the deep ball while connecting on nearly 66% of his pass attempts (171 of 261). He’s thrown for 2,718 yards and the 23 TDs against just six interceptions.
“When you look at me, you don’t think I play quarterback,” said Milroe, who is listed at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds but insists he is bigger than that. “You think I play DB, tight end. You don’t think I play quarterback. Growing up when I went to camp they labeled me as a receiver or they saw me as not playing the quarterback position.
“With that, I beat all odds by playing quarterback. Something I try to do as much as possible (is) be an efficient quarterback, be the best version of myself playing the position, because at the end of the day I want to be the best. … Number one (with) playing quarterback is throwing the football because the ball can get there quicker than my legs can.”
That is something O’Brien apparently did not think Milroe could do efficiently enough. Milroe went on to say that O’Brien told him “there’s a bunch of positions” he could have switched to from quarterback, presumably as a wide receiver, tight end or in the defensive backfield.
“But look where I am right now,” Milroe said. “Who gets the last laugh?”