He was just good enough, it turned out, to lose that learning curve. Graduation, injuries and a suspension gutted the defensive secondary before the 2010 season.
That left Milliner — one of the nation’s top high school cornerbacks a year earlier — playing without a safety net and learning on the fly.
“He had to grow up fast. He was forced to,” defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “He got thrown into the SEC and had to play early because of the situation we were in. It was trial by fire, and he has matured and has learned how to deal with some things. He has to continue to compete hard and fight for his job every day.”
Making 55 tackles and one interception made him a freshman All-SEC team member and ramped up expectations for his sophomore year.
It’ll also make for quality competition with three big names competing for the two cornerback jobs when the Tide plays its base 3-4 defense. A healthy DeQuan Menzie and an improved Dre Kirkpatrick figure to push each other throughout August before the Sept. 3 opener with Kent State.
Just a few days into the preseason, Smart said it was still too soon to identify anyone as a year just yet, but assured “nothing is going to be handed to anybody.”
Looking back to his first season that included 11 starts in 13 appearances, Milliner saw positives.
“There was never a point where I felt I was lost,” he said. “There were some times in the games where I had never been in that situation, but I never felt lost in a game.”
Statistically, Milliner’s production increased as the season progressed. After opening the season with a handful of tackles per game, he had no fewer than seven stops in each of the last four SEC games.
When Menzie missed the Tennessee game Oct. 23, Milliner broke through with seven tackles, a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble.
Coach Nick Saban spends a healthy share of practice time working with the defensive backs. He had a specific challenge laid out for Milliner to correct between his first two collegiate seasons.
“One thing we continue to work on is that he has better knowledge and experience but I talk about finishing being a mindset; finishing plays and finishing the game and not being a guy that as soon as things seem to be going well you become at ease with yourself,” Saban said. “He’s made a tremendous amount of improvement in that.”