Jalen Milroe's transformation into a complete QB has fueled Alabama's revival

Under the watchful eye of Nick Saban, Jalen Milroe has transformed into a complete quarterback. And he's a big reason the Crimson Tide are alive in the national title picture. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Under the watchful eye of Nick Saban, Jalen Milroe has transformed into a complete quarterback. And he's a big reason the Crimson Tide are alive in the national title picture. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) (Kevin C. Cox via Getty Images)

Even by his own cranky standards, Nick Saban was exceptionally annoyed. On April 22 of this year, Saban, sporting a jacket as blue as the sky over Bryant-Denny Stadium, stomped, sulked and seethed. Four quarterbacks took turns running the Alabama offense during the Tide’s A-Day spring practice, and all four quarterbacks floundered to one degree or another.

“The biggest thing we’re working on with the quarterbacks is, fundamentally, what they have to do to be able to process what the defense is doing,” Saban spat after the day was done. “Have a plan in your mind: 'This is where I’m reading, this is where I’m going, this is the progression that I want to go through,' and trust in that and believe in that and not start drifting around in the pocket.”

For the first few weeks of the season, it wasn’t just the quarterbacks drifting around; the Tide, from Saban on down, seemed adrift. A loss to Texas — one that’s still haunting the eighth-ranked Tide, by the way — plus a win over South Florida that was a one-possession game for more than 59 minutes led pretty much every observer outside Tuscaloosa (and quite a few within) to conclude that the Alabama locomotive was at last slowing down.

And then something remarkable happened. Milroe, benched during that USF game as a way of giving Tyler Buchner and Ty Simpson some playing time, returned to the starting lineup a changed man. The ball zipped from his hands quicker and ended up in the right receivers’ hands more often. And as a result, Alabama kept winning, and winning, and winning.

Pro Football Focus grades Milroe out at a 90.5 on the season, a strong rebound from the Texas loss, in which he graded at 58.2. Dig a little deeper into the numbers and it becomes clear why Milroe is now such a dangerous threat with both his arm and his legs.

Saban and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees have unlocked a deep-throw ability in Milroe that makes the Tide dangerous from anywhere on the field. Almost a quarter of Milroe’s throws are deep — more than 20 yards downfield — and on those throws, he’s hit for 12 touchdowns and one interception. PFF defines 18 of his deep downfield passes as “Big-Time Throws,” passes where timing and location are on-point. Anyone who’s seen, well, any of Alabama’s monster 2023 touchdown passes knows that’s the truth.

Note the contrast with medium-range throws — between 10 and 19 yards — where the defense is more packed and the separation smaller. In those confines, he has just three touchdowns and four interceptions, despite throwing almost the exact same number of passes deep — 46 to 48. Per Pro Football Focus, six of those 46 medium throws were turnover-worthy plays, meaning Milroe got away with two that should have been picks. By contrast, he has zero turnover-worthy plays when he airs it out.

Milroe is also becoming exceedingly dangerous with his feet. He’s scrambled out of broken plays 35 times for 360 yards; broadly speaking, that means that he’s averaged a first down literally every time he’s run forward to escape a collapsing play. Overall, he’s rushed for 524 yards on 47 attempts, an average of 6.4 yards per carry.

The strategy, then, is obvious — Milroe is so dangerous deep that teams must lock down every streaking receiver. He’s particularly wicked throwing in the difficult-to-cover area deep between the hashes, where he has a 70 percent completion rate — 14 of 20, seven touchdowns, no interceptions. That deep-ball threat in turn opens up the field for Milroe, or one of Alabama’s other ball-carriers, to break off big runs. Milroe still takes far too many sacks — 31 on the season — but if you don’t bring him down in the backfield, you might not bring him down at all.

It’s pick-your-poison playmaking, death by a dozen short runs or one deep ball. The Milroe plan hit its apex last week against Kentucky, where he became the first player in Alabama history — which is a long, long time — to throw for three touchdowns and run for three more. That’s how you go from suffering the worst loss on your home field in the Saban era (Texas) to winning the SEC West in just eight weeks.

Alabama faces Chattanooga this weekend in the traditional pre-Iron Bowl cupcake feast, and then Auburn at Jordan-Hare in a game Saban will treat as seriously as any championship given that it's the 10th anniversary of you-know-what. Alabama is already locked into the SEC championship game against Georgia, and if Milroe continues to play at his current level, much more after that.