TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban doesn't have a definition for a "shutdown cornerback." The term widely used by analysts is cliche to the head coach of the University of Alabama. It's an unfair assessment, he says, because every defender loses a battle at some point, without exception.
"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 one of the good ones, but the junior hasn't gotten beat much this season. Coming into last Saturday's game against Tennessee, he'd been targeted 25 times and allowed just 77 yards. When he went heads up with the Vols' Justin Hunter, a long receiver widely regarded as a future first-round pick, Milliner came out the victor. Hunter caught four passes for 70 yards. Milliner was named a player of the week by the UA coaching staff, while Tennessee coach Derek Dooley was stuck lamenting his impotent passing game.
Whether Saban wants to admit it, Milliner has earned the title of "shutdown corner." There have been entire games where quarterbacks won't even look to his side of the field. After the way he manhandled Denard Robinson and the Michigan Wolverines, intercepting one pass and breaking up four others, not many teams are willing to test him.
"He's been excellent," UA safety Robert Lester said. "You couldn't ask for any more. He's taken away a portion of the field. That's what you want back there."
Coming into Saturday's matchup against the undefeated Mississippi State Bulldogs, Milliner is No. 1 in the country in passes defended, a stat that combines interceptions and pass breakups.
So is he a shutdown corner?
"Oh yes," Lester said. "Exactly."
If he were just that, it would be one thing. A player capable of locking down the opposing team's best receiver is something coaches search high and low for. Saban found one in his backyard in Millbrook, Ala.
When Alabama traveled to Arkansas earlier in the year, Milliner held the Razorbacks star receiver Cobi Hamilton to two catches for 14 yards. When Hamilton went out the following week against a solid Rutgers defense, it was like a weight had been lifted. He went off for 10 catches, 303 yards and three touchdowns.
"You can't get by him, you can't shake him," said UA receiver Kevin Norwood, who goes against Milliner every day in practice. "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."
But what Milliner does goes beyond batting down passes and handcuffing receivers. His ability to step up in run support and understand the flow of the game is what separates him from the rest of the herd of ballhawking defensive backs.
"Milliner is a very good player, not only a good cover guy with good ball skills, but he's a good run-support guy," Saban said. "He's a good tackler. He's a really good all-around football player. He's instinctive."
Milliner is currently fifth on the team in tackles with 23. To give that number perspective, former UA cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who was selected in the first round by the Bengals in April, finished 10th on the team in tackles with 30. Kirkpatrick did that in 13 games. Milliner has played six.
"I just try to help them out as much as I can," Milliner said. "For me to come up and tackle, I do that so they can depend on me.
"I try to tell them that I'm an extra linebacker."
A cornerback with a linebacker's mentality? That's something NFL scouts drool over.
ESPN college football and draft analyst Kevin Weidl ranks Milliner as the top cornerback on the board. There's still some more film study to do, he said, but what he saw in Knoxville was enough to put Milliner ahead of Mississippi State's Jonathan Banks and Washington's Desmond Trufant.
In actuality, what Weidl saw from Milliner took just one quarter of play. When asked what stood out most about Milliner's performance, Weidl launched into two key plays. One, Tennessee tried to play a high-low game, sending Milliner's man on a fade route and the inside receiver on a corner route in an attempt to make him decide which to cover. The goal, Weidl said, was to make Tyler Bray throw the ball underneath, give up the easy yards and move on. Instead, Bray got greedy, threw to the corner route and Milliner pounced, displaying great burst and closing speed to get to the ball and knock it down. A little later in the quarter, Weidl watched as Milliner broke off his receiver to make a tackle in space, saving what could have been a big play.
It was all instincts, all between-the-ears play, Weidl said.
"Little things like that stick out to you," Weidl explained. "Some players have that movement skill but don't have the instinct sometimes."
Weidl said Milliner's savvy in terms of understanding not only how to execute a play, but understanding why it's executed the way it is, is what makes him a potential first-round pick.
"I would put him as the top corner right now," he said. "What I've seen, I like a lot."
All that for a guy who wasn't technically a starter a year ago. Milliner had to wait his turn behind Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie. Both had the term "shutdown corner" used to describe their play, and now it's Milliner's title to bear.
"Last year I understood more what I was doing, but now I know everything I'm supposed to do," he said.
Like Saban, Milliner wouldn't describe himself as a shutdown guy. In fact, he knows there's still more for him to learn. He's always been physical at the point of attack and he's always been able to play the ball in the air. This year is a case of it all coming together at the right time.