TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Ironically, Jalen Milroe’s signature moment was born out of a potential disaster. Starting center Seth McLaughlin sent a bad snap into the backfield, and the ball skirted past Milroe initially, but what happened next encapsulated why he earned the starting quarterback job for Alabama’s 56-7 Week 1 win over Middle Tennessee.
Milroe picked up the ball, evaded a few defenders and about 33 yards later (including the yardage lost on the snap), he reached the end zone for the game’s opening touchdown. The athleticism stood out, of course, but he didn’t panic and turned a potential negative into a positive. It was only one moment in one game, the first game, and against Middle Tennessee, but it was a tangible example of a player who is starting to pair physical traits with intangibles.
“Jalen did a good job,” Nick Saban said. “I think he’s had a good fall camp. I thought he played well in both scrimmages. I think he’s more confident, doing a good job in the passing game. His athleticism helps him. I mean, we scored a touchdown on a fumbled snap, which wasn’t his fault. He’s a threat to pull the ball on the zone plays, which we scored on (in the second quarter). And I thought he threw the ball effectively. I thought he played well.”
It’s hard to find any faults in Milroe’s opening game: 194 passing yards on a 72 percent completion rate and three touchdown passes, 48 more yards on the ground and two more touchdowns. He became the first Alabama quarterback with three passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in one game.
But after the game, Milroe spoke as someone who is still very much entrenched in a competition.
“Overall, I need to get better,” Milroe said. “I need to be better as a leader. I need to be better overall at what I’m doing. I just wanna continue to build and be the best version of myself when I take the field. There’s some things that I’m going to look at with the coaching staff and my teammates, look at some things that I need to improve on.”
It’s all but guaranteed that Milroe will get the nod Saturday in a mega-matchup with Texas, the next opportunity to cement his position as the starter. The opening win was a solid moment, but Saban noted (when answering a question about the wide receiver play) that the team will need to execute against a higher caliber down the road, starting with Texas. But Milroe, both on the field and at the podium, looked like a player prepared for a high-stakes game.
The starter quarterback from last year, current Carolina Panthers starter Bryce Young, helped Milroe develop that trait in two years as teammates.
“The awesome thing that Bryce has was how poised he was,” Milroe said. “Calm, cool and collected. I think that the biggest thing of playing the quarterback position is being calm, cool and collected, and Bryce has all elements and every part of his game that allows him to succeed.”
Milroe’s poise was evident in perhaps the most impressive throw of his career to date: a 48-yard strike to Isaiah Bond as Milroe was hit as he threw. There have been questions about Milroe’s ability to vertically stretch the field, but he finished with four completions of 15-plus yards, including touchdown throws of 48, 47 and 29 yards and a potential fifth that was prevented due to defensive pass interference.
The biggest stat of all: zero turnovers.
“Every element of my game, I want to improve on,” Milroe said. “But that element (deep ball passing) has to be there so we can push and succeed this year.”
He was supported by an offense that did just about everything it could to prop up an inexperienced quarterback. Alabama ran the ball 57 percent of the time while Milroe played, and while the offensive line didn’t get a consistent, dominant push, it did its job, especially on early downs. Alabama didn’t have a negative play on first down and averaged 8.4 yards per play on first down. The wide receivers got consistent separation and didn’t drop a pass. The offense also had zero penalties.
These converging factors allowed Milroe to play with the confidence that Saban had seen throughout the competition. His teammates saw it as well. Few people probably expected that many touchdowns in Milroe’s first game, but his teammates were not surprised.
“(I have) high expectations for Jalen,” wide receiver Jermaine Burton said. “He’s a great dude, a great leader. He practices great. He does everything he can to be a great leader to us. He does just whatever he can do extra to make sure that whenever we do get into games like this, it can be easy.”
Milroe’s challenge is stringing together consecutive strong performances to extend his lead in the competition. Just as easily as five touchdowns build momentum, turnovers against Texas could stifle it. And improvement is necessary, per Milroe and Saban. On one play, Middle Tennessee showed a blitz, and Milroe should’ve checked out of the play. He didn’t, and it turned into a negative play, a humbling lesson that will be beneficial down the road.
Saban often challenged the quarterbacks in the competition to take the job. For now, it’s Milroe, but he doesn’t view the competition in the same way as others do.
“Not necessarily,” Milroe said when asked if he took that mentality into the game. “I was just worried about getting one percent better each and every day. No matter who’s on the field, they’re QB1, so I just wanna be the best teammate that I can and root for every guy that was on the field. No matter who it is, I just want to be the best teammate I can.”
If nothing else, Saturday’s game provided a definitive pecking order at the position: Milroe, followed by transfer Tyler Buchner at No. 2 and redshirt freshman Ty Simpson at No. 3. What happens this week in practice and against the Longhorns will play a large role in crystallizing an order entering October. But all signs indicate that Milroe is in position to seize the job permanently.
But no one, not even Milroe, is ready to concede to that notion yet.
“Overall, my whole game,” Milroe said on where he could improve his play. “Like I said, we’re gonna take the 24-hour rule. Enjoy the win because that was a tough opponent. It was a tough opponent, and it took a lot of preparation going into the week each and every day trying to build. So I’m going to enjoy the win, but overall, I wanna improve my whole game.”
(Top photo: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)