TUSCALOOSA — As two of the three remaining members of Alabama’s top-ranked 2015 signing class still on the roster, Anfernee Jennings knows better than most what Joshua McMillon is capable of.
It’s why Jennings, a redshirt senior outside linebacker from Dadeville, has complete confidence that his fellow fifth-year defender can succeed if given the opportunity to start this season.
“Josh is hungry, he’s ready to go, and he’s a great leader,” Jennings said of McMillon on Tuesday. “He knows the playbook in and out.”
It’s that last bit of information that has McMillon as the overwhelming favorite to begin the 2019 season as Alabama’s first-team weakside/Will linebacker against Duke on Aug. 31. The former four-star linebacker from Memphis is expected to make his first career start in the Chick-fil-a Kickoff Classic at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“I think Josh is a very intelligent kid. Obviously, he’s an engineering major, but football comes easy to him,” first-year defensive coordinator Pete Golding said of McMillon last week. “He understands the Xs and Os and all those things.
“My biggest message to Josh, and it has been what I think he’s been doing now, is he’s having the ability to affect the 10 guys around him.”
Last month during SEC Media Days, Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban praised McMillon’s experience within the system and ability to efficiently process his individual responsibilities when called upon. Of course, Saban also made it clear the team’s Will ‘backer position is hardly a certainty at this point.
“The thing Josh does is he's been in the program for a long time, (so) he understands what he has to do to be successful at the position,” Saban said. “He is a thumper. He's very physical.
“(But), you know, whether he (or) someone else develops from that core group of (younger) linebackers to play with the consistency that we need sort of remains to be seen. … So it may be a committee of people at that position who fills roles relative to situations.”
Throughout much of his first four years in Tuscaloosa, McMillon has labored within what is traditionally a loaded inside ‘backer group, only recently receiving in-game reps as a reliable backup and special-teams contributor behind the likes of more talented linebackers like Rashaan Evans, Reuben Foster, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses – the first four of which are all currently in the NFL.
Last season, even as the team’s No. 3 inside linebacker, McMillon managed just 14 total tackles (one for loss) in 10 games, with most of his contributions coming on special teams.
Of course, following Wilson’s exit to the NFL and Moses’ natural move to the Mike spot, McMillon becomes the team’s next most-experienced player within a position group that has plenty of unbridled talent and potential but little to no seasoning with three sophomores and two true freshmen behind him. Which is where McMillon’s natural leadership and knowledge comes into play the most.
“With certain players leaving the defense, coaches ask everyone to step up and lead,” McMillon said, “and I’m just trying to do my best to step up and encourage everyone else around me, step up and make the calls and make the plays.”
Redshirt sophomore Markail Benton, who also managed just 14 tackles in 14 games as a reserve last season, is the only other inside linebacker with any legitimate in-game defensive experience, while fellow sophomores Ale Kaho and Jaylen Moody were mostly special teams players a year ago.
And then there’s arguably the two most talented of the bunch in physically-gifted true freshmen Shane Lee and Christian Harris, both of whom are four-star signees that tip the scales around 245 pounds and stand between 6-foot and 6-2.
Which is why, as important as it is for McMillon to make plays when he’s out on the field this season, arguably his biggest contribution could be helping prepare some of the younger inside linebackers for when their time inevitably comes later this season.
Even if it means a reduced role for himself.
“If I see it, if I see the wrong thing, I try and coach them up in practice as best I can — (but) I try and coach everyone up, just not certain people,” McMillon said. “You try and make everyone around you better. Even if I’m not in there they’re still going to play for Alabama. If I see it I can correct it, and I try and do my best to make sure it gets done right.”
Because, for as intimately as McMillon might know Alabama’s defense, the simple fact is his natural athleticism is lacking compared to some of his position-mates — a reality he’s accepted.
“I think the biggest thing from that position from an athletic standpoint, right now, we’ve got guys who are more athletic than he is — and he knows that and I told him that,” Golding said. “But his ability to get guys lined up, make the calls, and then he’s smart enough based on the formation and a back set — (because of) tendencies that we’ll give him and that he studies — that he can anticipate things which allows him to perform at the line and make some plays that athletically maybe other people couldn’t just because he understands, obviously, what’s coming.”
So, until some of the younger inside linebackers become more comfortable within the complicated Crimson Tide defense — comfortable enough to properly predict what the opposing offense is doing and make the appropriate adjustments — McMillon is ready and willing to accept a more significant role this season. Whether that means taking on considerably more defensive snaps or doing whatever he can to prepare his fellow teammates for their own opportunity, much like he did with Moses two years ago.
“(Moses) came in eager to learn (just) like each and every player (during their) freshman year. People come here and try to do their best to try and get on the field as early as possible,” McMillon said. “(Helping them) just prepares those guys to do the best they can do, (like reminding them) don’t get down on yourself because it is a big playbook and everybody has different challenges. So I just encourage them to do their best and make sure they keep their head up and push through.”