Nerves have never been a problem for Dee Milliner.
The confident New York Jets rookie cornerback is coming off winning consecutive national championships at Alabama, so the fact he’ll step on an NFL field in a real game for the first time Sunday is no big deal.
No butterflies. No cold sweats. No kidding?
”I don’t get nervous before a game,” Milliner said with a smile Friday. ”It’s still football. I’ve been doing this since I was 4 or 5 years old.”
Milliner, drafted No. 9 overall in April, is over the Achilles injury that limited him at times in the preseason and is slated to start opposite Antonio Cromartie in the Jets’ secondary against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
”Oh, man, right now I’m just really excited to be out there and be an NFL player in my first game,” he said. ”I know it’s going to be the same thing, just a much bigger spotlight.”
Milliner was a game into his junior year at Alabama at this time a year ago, a season that would end with a second straight national title under Nick Saban. With a terrific season for the Crimson Tide, Milliner went from being left off some early mock draft lists to being considered a potential top-5 picks a few months later.
After the Jets traded perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis to Tampa Bay a few days before the draft, they jumped at the chance to fill the vacancy in the secondary with the college player many considered the most complete at his position.
He’s not replacing Revis as the team’s No. 1 cornerback; that’s Cromartie’s job. But Milliner will be counted on heavily to step in and be effective at frustrating wide receivers on a weekly basis.
”He’s a young, talented kid,” defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman said. ”He understands the defense. He knows what he’s supposed to do. Can he go out and execute it? That’s the most important thing. We believe he can.
”He’s getting his first start. We’ll see.”
Milliner played in the Jets’ first two preseason games and was solid in the first at Detroit, but struggled a bit in the second against Jacksonville. After that game, in which he was beat a few times, the team revealed that Milliner had a calf injury that was affecting him.
Ryan let it slip recently that it was actually an Achilles injury — ”I messed up,” the coach said — but Milliner insists he’s ready to go.
”I’m fine, 100 percent,” he said. ”Feeling great. I’m doing good, practiced all week and been feeling good all week.”
The Jets will likely get a sense of how effective Milliner will be early in the game at MetLife Stadium since it’s expected that Josh Freeman and the Bucs offense will test him early.
”Oh, yeah, very much,” Milliner said. ”I’m the new guy on the block, so they’re going to be out there throwing at me, but I’ll be ready for it. I expect it. I want plays like that so I can make plays on the ball.”
That’s something he was used to doing at Alabama, particularly during a junior season in which he had 54 tackles, two interceptions, 20 passes defensed, a forced fumble and recovery, and 1 1/2 sacks.
Since being drafted, Milliner has drawn obvious comparisons to Revis, who will be on the other sideline Sunday. He has been answering questions about all that for months, and now he gets a chance to try to help Jets fans move on from Revis.
”I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do, and controlling what I can do, and play my game,” Milliner said. ”He’s his own man and I’m my own man, so I just have to go out there and do my job.”
Ryan has also said cornerback Kyle Wilson, the team’s first-round pick in 2010, will play quite a bit in the secondary, too, as the Jets plan to use him in various roles even with Cromartie and Milliner on the field.
”We feel good about our depth at corner,” Ryan said. ”The way the league is now, you can have three starting corners.”
Cromartie has taken it upon himself this summer to mentor Milliner, stressing what he needs to do to succeed as a starter in the NFL. Having a short memory, he knows, is key. If you get beat once as a cornerback, don’t let it carry into the next play.
”It’s the way of the National Football League,” Thurman said. ”If you’re not successful, they’re going to come at you until you are successful and that’s just the nature of the beast in this league. We’ll see if he’s up for the task. If he is, then he’ll go out there and he’ll perform, and that’s what we expect him to do.”
The Buccaneers have two go-to wide receivers in Vincent Jackson, who caught 72 passes for 1,384 yards and eight touchdowns, and Mike Williams, who had 63 receptions for 996 yards and nine scores. There’s a good chance Milliner will get plenty of face time with Williams on Sunday.
”Two great players,” Milliner said. ”They’re both two big targets and they take the ball out of the air and they’re going to be aggressive. So, you just have to be alert to what they’ll try to do, play aggressive with them, so Freeman’s going to try to get them the ball.”
No matter how he does, Milliner will be eager to watch the film to pick out what he could’ve done better and what he needs to improve on.
”I’m my own hardest critic, so I just like to go out there and expect to do my best,” Milliner said. ”And when I don’t, I criticize my own self before any coach or any other player does.
”It’s just a thing I harp on with myself. I try to be great.”