April 24, 2024

Jalen Milroe spent the holidays at home with his family. He didn’t go anywhere else, didn’t talk to anyone else, but he still couldn’t escape the question:

What was going through your mind on that play?

“Man,” Milroe laughed. “You had to be there.”

The play in question is from the Iron Bowl. A bad snap and an illegal forward pass on Milroe set up fourth-and-goal from the 31-yard-line with 41 seconds to go. Alabama’s defeat, and their season, seemed all but certain.

But then, Milroe took the snap, stood in the pocket for what felt like an eternity, and zipped the ball through the air into the hands of his receiver, Isaiah Bond, for the game-winning touchdown.

“That game, everything was really on the line,” said Alabama offensive lineman Jaeden Roberts. “We were going against a really good team, and I think we all understand what it took just to keep going as a football team, and Jalen definitely took that in stride and just did his thing. … That was a huge part of our journey.”

It was ultimately that play that completely changed Milroe’s — and Alabama’s — fortunes this year. In less than 10 seconds, the Crimson Tide suddenly put themselves in the College Football Playoff semifinals picture. A win over Georgia in the SEC championship one week later secured their spot in the top four. But at the beginning of the season, the outlook couldn’t have been any more different.

In Week 3, Milroe was benched following a loss to Texas. Tyler Buchner got the start against South Florida as the Tide struggled to defeat a Group of Five school.

“We should have beat those guys by more than what we did,” tight end Robbie Ouzts said. “I think early in the year, we kind of didn’t have the chemistry that we needed as a football team.”

Milroe earned the starting role back the following week. When he looks back now, he says he feels getting benched was a necessary part of the journey to be the best teammate that he could be.

“At the end of the day, we share the A,” said Milroe, referring to the Alabama logo. “That time wasn’t my time, it was more about shining a light on my brothers, and allowing [Buchner] to grow.”

Even though Milroe and Buchner were locked in a battle that dragged along into the season, they supported each other throughout the process.

“Jalen is an awesome guy,” Buchner said. “He’s great around the building and with all of the quarterbacks, super helpful and smart, and he’s super talented. So just being around him has been a blessing.”

Buchner noted that Milroe’s talent really shows up when they’re watching film. The way he throws the ball, the boost his legs give him all stand out in a way that Buchner’s never seen, especially during a scramble Buchner saw against LSU. Milroe stepped up in the pocket, cut to the left, cut upfield and outran the defense into the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown right before halftime.

“That was pretty special,” Buchner said. “There’s not many guys who could make that play.”

For all of the talent Milroe displays, he’s also put in the work since he arrived in Tuscaloosa in January 2021, when Alabama was away playing for a national championship, and he used the time to get work in with a few other early arrivals, such as defensive back Kool Aid McKinstry.

McKinstry and Milroe, among others, lifted weights during the day, then hit the indoor facility at night to run one-on-one drills.

“I feel like those moments and practices showed us how dedicated he was and how good of a player he wanted to be,” McKinstry said. “Just seeing his work ethic back then, I knew he wanted to be great.”

Ouzts, who was also part of the same recruiting class, couldn’t help but beam with pride when he talked about the growth Milroe has shown.

“He’s the hardest worker on the offense,” Ouzts said. “Love him. I’m so proud of how far he’s came and the strides that he’s made this season. We wouldn’t be here without him.”

Roberts has always thought of his quarterback as a leader, the guy who can put his team on his shoulders and carry them past the finish line.

“I’ll go to war with him any day,” he said.

Offensive lineman Tyler Booker said Milroe’s been the same person since Day 1 of spring ball in terms of his attitude and spirit, but it’s his growth athletically that’s unlocked the offense.

If Alabama gets past Michigan in the Rose Bowl on Monday, the Tide will find themselves in familiar territory: playing for another national championship. And Milroe will have the opportunity to join the ranks of recent championship quarterbacks to come through Tuscaloosa, including Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones, Jalen Hurts and Pasadena’s own Bryce Young.

“As quarterbacks, all we want to do is pick the standard, which is the ‘Bama standard,” Milroe said. “Coach [Nick] Saban did a really good job with each of those quarterbacks’ development to where they ultimately want to go. For me, the biggest thing I can do is just soak up the most information possible because they did things the right way.”

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