It's Oct. 22, 2012, and Dee Milliner is sitting in the sports information office at Alabama's sparkling Mal Moore Athletic Facility. He has no idea that he is just three months away from another BCS championship. He has no idea that in five months he will set the NFL draft combine on its ear (and nearly break Twitter) by running the 40-yard dash in 4.31 and 4.37 seconds. And he has no idea that by March 7, he not only will be ranked first among cornerbacks in both Mel Kiper's and Todd McShay's mock drafts, but both draft analysts will have him among the top five players overall in what looks to be a defense-dominated first round.
"I don't have any idea what's going to happen with me and the NFL," Milliner confessed in October, already aware of too-early knocks on his ability to turn and run. Then he leaned forward for emphasis, looking decidedly smaller in just a T-shirt and workout shorts than his listed 6-foot-1, 199 pounds. "But here's what I know about playing at Alabama. Nowhere is going to have me better prepared for professional football than this place right here."
Milliner is not wrong. At the close of the 2012-13 season, there were 33 Crimson Tide alums on NFL rosters. That's not tops among all FBS schools -- USC has more -- but it's a significant total.
However, when you talk to the people who make their livings evaluating NFL talent, they don't gush about Alabama's quantity of pros. They're too busy drooling over the quality.
"Look at who those 33 players are," an NFL scout said. "You're not looking at a bunch of roster-fillers. They're starters. They're contributors. It's guys who will be worth the investment. Guys that will be in the league for seven years or more."
Another scout pointed out the value of drafting prospects from development-savvy programs.
"You draft guys out of some schools because you know they will be beasts athletically, but at a lot of those places, the football they have learned in college is bare bones," he said. "You're going to have to work for a long time to coach them up. It might take a few seasons to get a guy's brain to catch up to his body. But you'll draft guys out of other schools because they are already so damn football smart. It eliminates a lot of work for our coaches."
Those feelings were repeated to me over and over last summer as I visited with coaches at NFL training camps. The staff of the Denver Broncos, for example, were sizing up which of the young offensive players ("young" being defined as third season or less) could keep up with the light-speed revamp that was taking place with the arrival of Peyton Manning.
"It's pretty intimidating to go from the film room at State U and then step into an NFL film room," Broncos coach John Fox explained. "And it's pretty intimidating when you've been working from a college playbook that is one three-ring binder and now I'm handing you a file cabinet."
That's why, in Fox's words, he will find himself willing to look at a player who might be a half-step slower but comes from what he described as "an NFL pedigree in college." The idea is that less time spent explaining X's and O's in the meeting room means more time spent running them on the practice field.
"There's a familiarity to it," former Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian said. "I look at a college staff and see coaches that I know and that I recognize and I know that either I can get an honest assessment of a kid or I know that he will be familiar with some NFL lingo right off the bat."
Or, as another NFL personnel director said to me: "I've got coaches bending my ear all the time about, 'Don't forget so-and-so has been working with coach so-and-so at this college. That coach has NFL experience, so that kid will get it as soon as he gets here.' "
Case in point is quarterback Ryan Nassib, who led an 8-5 Syracuse team that started the season 2-4 and could look as bad one week as it does great the next. But the 6-2, 229-pounder is listed on most boards as third-ranked among QBs, trailing only Geno Smith and Matt Barkley. Why? Because of the staff he played for -- the same staff that basically just took over the Buffalo Bills.
"[Former Syracuse coach] Doug [Marrone] was always perceived as a pro guy coaching in college," one scout said. "He played in the league forever. He coached in the league for years before he went back to Syracuse. His whole staff was a bunch of pro guys. Nassib earns points in the eyes of a lot of NFL people because in theory he will know the system when he walks in the door. He's already had to learn it from scratch once, when Doug first got there. You know that's a guy who isn't afraid of homework."
The Saban effect
So, how does that work with Alabama coach Nick Saban, the guy whose infamously brief stint with the Miami Dolphins is sandwiched by his legendary college success? How is he still so revered among evaluators in a league where he was a head coach for barely two years before leaving?
The answer to that question is nearly universal among NFL people, and it's a two-parter.
"First off, if Nick did only one thing right during his short time in the NFL, it was prove that he could evaluate talent," one of the scouts said. "I worked for him. He was relentless about looking at college kids. And the checklist that he sent us all out into the field with is something I still use. He changed the way I look at football players. And I've been doing this a long time."
The second part of their answer takes us back to Milliner's October declaration: "Nowhere is going to have me better prepared for professional football than this place right here."
Polian, echoing the sentiment of his colleagues, agreed. "After a couple of decades of sending players into the NFL, his track record can't be questioned. His players have consistently arrived at their first camps with a willingness to work and the ability -- more importantly, the desire -- to learn. It's so, so difficult to create that work ethic in a player. He usually either comes with or he doesn't."
The scout continued: "He [Saban] didn't sign dummies to the Dolphins. He doesn't recruit dummies to Alabama. He can't because they can't handle his coaching style. So we know they certainly won't be dummies by the time they get to us."
As Milliner talked back in October, he was joined by some of his teammates, including linebackers C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson and safety Vinnie Sunseri. The core of Bama's defense started to break down a key series of plays in their just-finished drubbing of Tennessee. They claimed that they were inside the head of the Vols' offense nearly from the first snap, a weekly routine thanks to an NFL-style defensive playbook delivered each week by Saban and packed with a custom-designed stack of schemes for the upcoming opponent, each scheme stacked with layers of reads.
"It's a chess game," Mosley said. "I think in most places, the offense is setting the tone of what's up next. They see what a defense does and then change their play and snap it. Well, here we try to dictate what's going on. We might show them three different looks. They shift, then we shift, then they shift, then we shift. Now we're calling the play instead of them."
The play they call is usually not even the play they're showing. It's not unusual for the Tide defense to start out in one look, shift to a second, then a third, but the set they're actually playing from isn't they one they're in. It's actually what they showed two looks earlier, the set that the quarterback long ago dismissed. That's when the traps are sprung.
"You actually have to kind catch yourself and not smile," Milliner said, grinning. "You see that quarterback bite and you know what he's going to do because we've seen it on tape a thousand times during the week. He gets tricked and then he starts to do exactly what the coaches told us he would and it's like ... whoa ... this is really happening. You know you've got him, but you have to keep from smiling or looking overconfident because you don't want him to know that you know. You know?"
I asked the players if they appreciated the depth of knowledge they'd been handed, reminding them that the NFL personnel staffers certainly do.
"I talk to the guys who were on this team my first couple of years and are now in the league, I talk to them all the time," Mosley said. "They told me that when they got to the NFL, they were actually kind of surprised at how easy it was to learn the pro game because of what they learned at Alabama."
And that, football fans, is like an orchestra to the ears of those who will be hunkered down in NFL draft war rooms next month.