Joshua McMillon may be just what the 2019 Alabama defense needs

Christopher Walsh

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — You ask most college football players about the first time they got on the field in a game and they usually say something about how exciting it was, and call it an unforgettable moment.

But not Alabama interior linebacker Joshua McMillon.

Maybe the memory of finally being inserted against Fresno State in 2017, when he notched his first career tackle, or because it was his third year in the program has dulled the memory a little.

Regardless, to him it paled in comparison to the first time McMillon was on the practice field with Nick Saban.

“It’s just so intense,” he said. “Playing in an actual game is kind of relaxed. You’re prepared for it. You’ve done that play probably 10 times before you get to the actual game.

“It was Coach Saban, you know? You’ve seen him on TV. It’s kind of a different setting from coming to your home. But it was like, you didn’t want to mess up. You always stay on your toes.”

Of all the players who are expected to start for the Crimson Tide this season, there’s probably been the least hype or discussion about McMillon. He doesn’t have blazing speed or first-round draft aspirations, which is a little different for Alabama at inside linebacker.

He’s just solid.

Alabama could use some of that right now.

Mention his position group and Dylan Moses understandingly gets all the attention. During the past five years the Crimson Tide has also boasted the likes of Reuben Foster, Rashaan Evans and Mack Wilson — all former 5-star prospects — in the middle of the defense.

Meanwhile, McMillion has quietly plugged along on the Crimson Tide roster. At 6-3, 237 pounds he’d stand out more nearly anywhere else, but that’s not what he’s about.

When he arrived from the Memphis area, where McMillon played at Whitehaven High School, he was considered a promising 4-star talent who played in the 2015 Under Armour All-America Game and invited to the 2014 "The Opening" on the Nike campus in Oregon.

He then redshirted, and spent another year on the bench. With the big picture in mind, Crimson Tide coaches tried him at outside linebacker for a bit, but switched him back to the interior.

With Wilson leaving early, McMillon’s chance finally arrived during the spring. Instead of the Crimson Tide have an open competition to find a replacement he was the only one to take first-team reps alongside Moses.

The transition appeared to be seamless.

“Man, Josh has been here just as long as me,” senior outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings said.

“Josh is hungry, he’s ready to go, and he’s a great leader. He knows the playbook in and out.”

When it comes to McMillon’s biggest strengths, Jennings touched on the ones that keyed his teammates’ ascension, experience and stability. On a defense with very few seniors and a handful of returning starters he can be a rock in the middle.

Joshua McMillon stretches before an Alabama practice.
Joshua McMillon stretches in the front row of defensive players during a recent practice. Courtesy Alabama Athletics

Granted, he won’t chase down as many ball carriers, but he’ll rarely be out of position.

“I think Josh is a very intelligent kid,” defensive coordinator and interior linebacker coach Pete Golding said. “Obviously, he’s an engineering major, but football comes easy to him. He understands the Xs and Os and all those things.

“But I think his biggest thing, his biggest role for us is to able to affect the other 10 guys on the field.”

Some of that is getting players lined up right, calling adjustments, being prepared and knowing what’s coming.

Occasionally, and McMillon alluded to it during his first time in the Crimson Tide’s media room as a team leader on Thursday, he can not just anticipate what’s coming but be a step ahead and counter what the offense wants to do beforehand.

It’s also just having a presence that can raise everyone’s confidence.

That takes time to develop, something the Crimson Tide is seeing less and less of with so many players leaving early for the NFL.

“The most challenging part about is you come here, you compete and work hard every day, and just coming from high school, being that guy, you expect to go out there and just be granted the opportunity immediately,” junior running back Brian Robinson Jr. said. “You’re like, ‘Why am I not this? Why am I not this?’ And you’re not ready, and the film’s not going to lie to you.

“You should take that as a humbling experience and just focus on just getting better so that you are ready to play.”

Overall, McMillon has played in 22 career games, and last season was credited with 14 tackles, including one for a loss.

But he’s ready.

Saban called him “a thumper. He is very physical,” yet just as important is that McMillon doesn’t make many mistakes.

He makes the plays that he’s supposed to make, which is an underrated commodity at Alabama, especially for a linebacker.

So he may not be the loudest player, the most outgoing (although Jennings says he’s funny), or dominate the spotlight.

That’s fine with McMillon. He’s the rare player who when asked about his collegiate career talks first about his growth off the field than what he’s done as a player.

“I just try to keep the same goals as in the past,” he said. “First and foremost, get a degree like Coach Saban always preaches to us, be the best teammate you can be and be the best man I can be all around.

“I try to stick to my same values. Keep God first. Stay good in school. Be the great teammate. With certain players leaving the defense, coaches ask everyone to step up and lead 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.”