By Mark Edwards
TUSCALOOSA — One of the first times Dee Milliner met Nick Saban came at his high school gym.
Although pretty much the whole school knew it, Milliner didn’t believe the Alabama football coach had come to Stanhope Elmore High and was hanging out in the gym.
“Everybody was saying, ‘Coach Saban’s in the gym.’ Something like that,” Milliner said. “I was like, ‘Nobody told me,’ so I thought he wasn’t there. When I got ready to come in there, he was in there, dribbling around a basketball, like he was going to play one-on-one.
“It was a great experience for me when I first met him, when he first offered me, when he was recruiting me.”
A lot has changed for Milliner since then. After helping Stanhope Elmore to the state football playoffs all four years he attended school there, then playing a big role in Alabama’s back-to-back national championships, he is headed to the NFL.
An All-America cornerback, he announced Friday he will bypass his senior year and enter in the NFL Draft, which will be April 25-27. He said he made up his mind Wednesday.
He said he got his report back from the NFL Draft advisory board after Alabama beat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, and that the board rated him as a likely first-round choice. It hardly is alone in its opinion of Milliner. Trying to find a mock draft that doesn’t list him as a first-round pick is kind of like trying to find a day when the earth didn’t turn and the sun didn’t rise.
Without assurances of his draft chances, he might not have bypassed his senior season.
“I decided after sitting down with Coach Saban, talked with my people, I felt like I had a great experience here, but I had a great chance of being picked in the first round,” he said. “It played a role in leaving.”
In addition, Milliner said he felt he had done everything at Alabama he wanted to do: win a championship, make All-American, and help the Crimson Tide continue to thrive. Alabama was the preseason No. 1 team when he arrived in 2010 and likely will be again as he leaves.
“I fulfilled all my goals,” he said. “I think I”m ready and prepared to go to the next level.”
Also, he has dreamed of the NFL before. He has talked often about how he joked with his Stanhope Elmore coach, Jeff Foshee, about playing pro football eventually.
“Actually, he called me the day before the (BCS) game we were cracking jokes still about that,” Milliner said. “Now, it’s fixing to be come a reality, and I’ll be overwhelmed when that time comes and I get my named called.”
Milliner said he doesn’t have an agent yet and hasn’t planned out a training schedule. However, he said he has spoken with former Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who was a first-round pick in last year’s draft. Kirkpatrick spent much of his rookie season with the Cincinnati Bengals out with a broken bone in his knee.
“He said it’s always the same he says from high school to college and from college to NFL,” Milliner said. “There’s a business side now in the NFL. Competition, the same thing that you always had here. Different skill sets and calibre of people you’re going to play with.”
As for Saban, his most recent conversations with Milliner haven’t involved playing basketball in the Stanhope Elmore gym. Instead, the coach said he has spoken with Milliner about graduating. He said Milliner is less than two semesters from his degree.
“One of the issues always when you talk about is a guy going out in the NFL Draft, is he going to be able to graduate,” Saban said. “I always tell the players that some day somebody’s going to tell you that you can’t play football any more and it’s not going to be your choice. The one thing that’s going to affect that is the fact that you’ve developed a career outside athletics and graduated from school.”
It doesn’t surprise Milliner that even though he has played his final game for Saban, the coach still is advising and coaching him. Milliner said he figured he wouldn’t have a chance to make it to the NFL without him.
“I feel very much comfortable and ready for anything that’s thrown at me at the next level,” Milliner said. “The way that they push you and get at you here, it’s different from all the other schools. The things that we do here are so different and are the same as they do in the NFL, so I think I’ll be very much ready.”