TUSCALOOSA — You’ll have to forgive Alabama receiver Kevin Norwood.
He has done something few do around the Crimson Tide football program: Disagree publicly with Nick Saban.
When asked about “shutdown” cornerbacks, Saban said he doesn’t believe there is such a player. But when Norwood was asked if the Tide’s Dee Milliner fits the definition of a one, he replied quickly, “Yes, sir.”
Norwood clearly was just trying to say something nice about his teammate, but whether there is such a player as a shutdown cornerback, Milliner at least has come close this season. The Alabama junior has broken up 13 passes this year and intercepted two others, giving him a total of 15 in the NCAA’s “passes defended” statistic. That figure leads the country.
“His ability to be physical, you can’t get by him. You can’t shake him,” Norwood said. “He’s very quick and explosive. He has an eye for the ball, too. When the ball is in the air it’s usually his or no one else’s.”
This is the potential Millner showed when he came out of Stanhope Elmore High in 2010. Rivals.com rated him as an elite five-star prospect, the only one Alabama signed that year.
At 6-foot-1 and 199 pounds, he started part-time as a freshman and sophomore, as Alabama had eventual NFL cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie working their way through the program. Now, it’s Milliner’s turn to star for the Crimson Tide.
But even with all he has done this year, Saban isn’t willing to say he’s a shutdown cornerback.
“Every corner I’ve ever coached, every corner I ever knew, always got beat,” Saban said. “They all got beat. Every one of them. I’ve had some really good ones. The ones that are really good get beat less. ... Dee Milliner is a very good player, not only a good cover guy with good ball skills, but he’s a good run-support guy.
“He’s a good tackler. He’s a really good all-around football player. He’s instinctive. So, he’s a good player for us and played a lot of good football around here for us.”
If Milliner is so good at either breaking up or intercepting passes, why do other teams still throw his way? Saban insisted teams don’t pick on any particular defensive back. Instead, that’s where the play might be designed to go.
Even so, Milliner broke up four passes each against Michigan and Ole Miss. He broke up three against Missouri. Tennessee challenged him seriously only once -- on a route to the end zone in the second half, but Milliner broke up that play, too.
Now comes Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell, who Milliner faced last year. The Tide defender broke up two passes in a 24-7 win.
But Milliner said he doesn’t expect the same guy as a year ago.
“I’ve seen a lot of great things from him this year,” he said. “He’s more of a great passer this year than he was last year.”
No matter what happens Saturday or the rest of the season, at least one NFL draft analyst figures Milliner will have a decision to make after the year is done. ESPN’s Todd McShay rates him as the 18th best prospect for the 2013 draft, if he chooses to bypass his senior season. Saban has said if a player is a first-round pick, he has his blessing to leave early.
“His recognition skills and just reading routes, anticipating, I’ve really been impressed with that,” McShay said. “What translates so well to the next level is being able to play zone and man, and being able to understand what receivers are trying to do and how teams are trying to attack your secondary and just being able to make plays on the football.
“That to me is so important when you’re evaluating these corners. Can they get in the right position? Do they know what the opponent is trying to do? Can they protect themselves, but are they instinctive enough to get in the play? Are they willing to mix it up versus the run? You get positive answers when you evaluate him across the board. He’s not an exceptional talent, but it won’t surprise me, if he does decide to leave early, if he winds up being one of the top three cornerbacks in the class.”