Josh McMillon

Alabama linebacker Joshua McMillon, 40, looks to make a plauy during first half action in the Alabama A-Day  scrimmage in April. [MICKEY WELSH/MONTGOMERY ADVERTISER]

TUSCALOOSA — As two of the three remaining members of Alabama’s top-ranked 2015 signing class still on the roster, Anfernee Jennings knows better than most what Joshua McMillon is capable of.

It’s why the redshirt senior outside linebacker from Dadeville has complete confidence that his fellow fifth-year defender can succeed if given the opportunity to start this season.

“Josh is hungry, he’s ready to go, and he’s a great leader,” Jennings said of McMillon on Tuesday. “He knows the playbook in and out.”

It’s that last bit of information that has the former four-star linebacker from Memphis favored to begin the season as Alabama’s first-team weakside/Will linebacker and  make his first career start beside returning middle/Mike linebacker Dylan Moses against Duke on Aug. 31.

“I think Josh is a very intelligent kid. Obviously, he’s an engineering major, but football comes easy to him,” first-year defensive coordinator Pete Golding said last week. “He understands the Xs and Os and all those things. My biggest message to Josh, and it has been what I think he’s been doing now, is he’s having the ability to affect the 10 guys around him.”

Last month during SEC Media Days, Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban praised McMillon’s experience within the system and ability to efficiently process his individual responsibilities whenever called upon. Saban also made it clear the team’s Will ‘backer position is hardly a certainty at this point.

“The thing Josh does is he's been in the program for a long time, (so) he understands what he has to do to be successful at the position,” Saban said. “He is a thumper. He's very physical. (But), you know, whether he (or) someone else develops from that core group of (younger) linebackers to play with the consistency that we need sort of remains to be seen. … So it may be a committee of people at that position who fills roles relative to situations.”

Throughout much of his first four years in Tuscaloosa, McMillon has labored within what is traditionally a loaded inside ‘backer group, only recently receiving in-game reps as a reliable backup and special-teams contributor.

Last season, even as the team’s No. 3 inside linebacker, McMillon managed just 14 total tackles (one for loss) in 10 games, with most of his contributions coming on special teams.

Afer Mack Wilson’s exit to the NFL and Moses’ natural move to the Mike spot, McMillon becomes the team’s next most-experienced player within a position group that has plenty of talent and potential but little to no seasoning with three sophomores and two true freshmen behind him. That's where McMillon’s natural leadership and knowledge comes into play the most.

“With certain players leaving the defense, coaches ask everyone to step up and lead,” McMillon said, “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.”

Redshirt sophomore Markail Benton, who also managed just 14 tackles in 14 games as a reserve last season, is the only other inside linebacker with any legitimate in-game defensive experience, while fellow sophomores Ale Kaho and Jaylen Moody were mostly special teams players a year ago.

And then there’s the talented true freshmen Shane Lee and Christian Harris, both of whom are four-star signees that tip the scales around 245 pounds and stand between 6-foot and 6-2.

Which is why, as important as it is for McMillon to make plays when he’s out there on the field this Fall, arguably his biggest contribution could be helping prepare some of the younger inside linebackers on the roster for when their time inevitably comes later this season.

Even if it means a reduced role for himself.

“If I see it, if I see the wrong thing, I try and coach them up in practice as best I can — (but) I try and coach everyone up, just not certain people,” McMillon said. “You try and make everyone around you better. Even if I’m not in there they’re still going to play for Alabama. If I see it I can correct it, and I try and do my best to make sure it gets done right.”

Because, for as intimately as McMillon might know Alabama’s defense, the simple fact is his natural athleticism is lacking compared to some of his position-mates — a reality he’s accepted.

“I think the biggest thing from that position from an athletic standpoint, right, we’ve got guys who are more athletic than he is — and he knows that and I told him that,” Golding said. “But his ability to get guys lined up, make the calls, and then he’s smart enough based on the formation and a ‘back set — (because of) tendencies that we’ll give him and that he studies — that he can anticipate things which allows him to perform at the line and make some plays that athletically maybe other people couldn’t just because he understands, obviously, what’s coming.”

So, until some of the younger inside linebackers become more comfortable within the complicated Crimson Tide defense — comfortable enough to properly predict what the opposing offense is doing and made the appropriate adjustments — McMillon is ready and willing to accept a more significant role this season, whether that means taking on considerably more defensive snaps or doing whatever he can to prepare his fellow teammates for their own opportunity, much like he did with Moses two years ago.

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