The 6 a.m. alarm never stopped for Joshua McMillon that summer. It wasn’t supposed to be easy, he admitted, even though the program was a bully.
Lessons from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Two hours in a lab, followed by a trip to the Alabama football complex.
“I had to train alone,” recalls McMillon, “because I was in class during the training period. “
Every day for two months was life, because becoming the first football player of the Nick Saban era to earn an engineering degree from Alabama was worth it.
The first part of that feat came last December when the Memphis native walked across the stage to receive his mechanical engineering degree at Coleman Coliseum.
It turned out that the glory of football had to wait. In the prime position to debut last fall, McMillon tore his ACL at preseason camp a few weeks before the opener. The NCAA then granted him a sixth year of eligibility after wearing his red shirt in his first season, so he will have his chance to play a starring role in the Crimson Tide defense this fall.
McMillon, who is now pursuing his Masters in Marketing, has certainly come a long way thus far. The academic side was a beast, he can now say, despite arriving in Alabama confidently in the classroom. School has always been easy for McMillon, and the early undergrads weren’t too bad either.
The more he progressed through the College of Engineering, the more taxed he felt. McMillon remembers sprinting from football practices to study sessions to keep pace with his classmates without juggling the complex Crimson Tide playbook and this advanced field of study.
Sometimes he thought maybe it was too much.
“Look, daddy, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he recalls saying on phone calls home. “I think I have to change. Should I focus on football? Should I focus on school?
Why not the two of them?
“I stuck with the plan,” said McMillon, “I stuck to it and he thanked me a million times and I thanked him because without him being in my corner…
“My mother, my aunt, my fiance, everyone has been in my corner.”
This includes Chuck Karr, the dean of the College of Engineering in Alabama.
“Oh,” McMillion said, “me and Karr have a great relationship.”
They return to a college fair at the Memphis Botanical Garden that McMillon attended while in high school. It was seven years ago.
Karr was there to represent UA when McMillon’s mother approached him for a presentation the Dean still remembers. She told him her son would be the next star linebacker in Alabama, a claim he’s heard before in conversations like this.
“And I end up walking up to him and he said, ‘Damn, she wasn’t wrong,'” McMillion remembers saying Karr.
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The dean remembers that 20-minute conversation when the young student asked about juggling aerospace engineering and playing for Nick Saban. He originally wanted to be an astronaut, but a 6-foot-3, 241-pound frame doesn’t exactly fit in a Falcon 9. So he opted for mechanical engineering.
“I have enormous respect for Josh McMillon because he’s probably had a thousand opportunities to quit engineering for another program,” Karr said. “But he was just adamant he was here to get an engineering degree and he stuck to it and was tenacious about it. And you just have to have a lot of respect for the people who do that.
McMillon is not the first to try.
Others, including former defensive lineman DeShawn Hand, tried engineering before changing majors. Hand chose Alabama over Michigan, citing the engineering program as a deciding factor for one of the nation’s top rookies in 2013. Now in the NFL, Hand graduated from Alabama in three and a half years. with a degree in commerce.
McMillon arrived in Tuscaloosa without Hand’s athletic fanfare. He was the nation’s No. 241 prospect (16th among outside linebackers) as a solid four-star in the 247Sports rating.
“He’s not a natural athlete where he has all of these show jumping stats,” said high school coach Rodney Saulsberry. “But he’s a very strong athlete who can do the job. Sometimes it takes a while for it to develop.
A ripped ACL in his senior season at Whitehaven High stole some momentum before entering Alabama. He blasted that 2015 season after arriving in the same recruiting class as Calvin Ridley, Da’Ron Payne and future roommate Minkah Fitzpatrick. The three are now entering their third season in the NFL while McMillon is ready for his shot.
He played reserve roles from 2016 to 2018 with future draft picks Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster, Rashaan Evans, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Mack Wilson ahead of him on the depth chart at some point in his career in Alabama. Wilson’s exit to the NFL made room for the middle linebacker for 2019 – the same fall semester in which he would graduate as an engineer.
Instead, he tore his knee on August 10 during a scrum. Dylan Moses would do the same a few weeks later, suddenly leaving Alabama without the experience and knowledge the two brought to a role that is effectively the defense quarterback.
He could have gotten that degree in mechanical engineering and moved on to a lucrative job. Instead, McMillion made a decision that he would later say was easy.
“It was just a bad taste left in my mouth, from last year,” he said. “At 11-2, I don’t want to end my college career on a bad note like that. I don’t think anyone who came to the University of Alabama would want to end up like this.
And he might not be finished after this fall, either. The NCAA is granting an additional year of eligibility for fall athletic athletes playing during the pandemic, and McMillon told AL.com he’s keeping all options open for what would be a seventh season with the program.
“I mean, I want to make the most of all my opportunities,” he said. “It’s definitely taken into consideration.”
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For this fall, Moses also came back in a boon for middle linebacker depth. Rising sophomores Christian Harris and Shane Lee were thrown into the fire after Moses and McMillon fell as the pair started almost every game of 2019.
It will be McMillon’s mastery of defense that brings him onto the pitch, as defensive coordinator Pete Golding acknowledged last August.
“We have guys who are more athletic than him and he knows that,” Golding said before last season. “I told him. But his ability to line up guys, to make calls, and then he’s smart enough based on the training and the hindsight, the trends we’re going to give him and that he’s studying, that he can anticipate things that allow him to perform on the line and play games that maybe other people couldn’t athletically just because he understands, of course, what’s to come.
It comes from being a member of two national championship teams and playing with “countless numbers of first-round players.”
Everything is falling into place for McMillon six years after choosing Alabama and resisting any temptation to change since.
He’s about to do something rarely, if ever, accomplished, but more importantly, McMillon has the degree that was the real goal from the start.
“His athletic career is very similar to his college career,” said Karr, the dean of engineering at Alabama. “I’m sure he could have turned around and run elsewhere a thousand times, but he stuck with that in football and it looks like it just might pay off. He stuck with that in the game. ‘engineering.
“It looks like it might pay off.”
Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on twitter @ByCasagrande Or on Facebook.