Jalen Mills crouched off the right edge in November and peered at quarterback AJ McCarron with a simple directive pinging around his brain.
The freshman’s choice was binary playing at nickel. If running back T.J. Yeldon remained still, keep charging the Alabama quarterback. And should the fellow freshman trickle into flat, swerve off course and prevent a simple screen.
Of course, what happened doesn’t need a long recitation. Yeldon slid. Mills kept charging. Then there’s the simple flick of the wrist from McCarron, three missed tackles as Yeldon weaved to the north end zone and the Crimson Tide’s go-ahead score in a 21-17 victory.
On the sideline, defensive coordinator John Chavis tracked down Mills and wrapped his arms around the soon-to-be freshman All-American.
“It’s OK,” Chavis told Mills. “We missed one.”
If he were to watch the play now, Mills would see an apt metaphor for a season where circumstance — the dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu — pressed him into service with then redshirt freshman Jalen Collins as an understudy.
“I see a guy that got caught up in the hype of the game,” Mills said, “and really wasn’t focused and just trying to make a play.”
Over eight games, the promotions unfolded smoothly as LSU allowed only Texas A&M to throw for 200 or more yards before a four-game finish where opponents strafed the Tigers secondary for 331.3 yards per game and seven touchdowns.
“You always play great teams, but as far as a defense we slacked off on what we were doing at the beginning of the season,” Collins said. “We lost a little bit of that focus, and that’s what hurt down the stretch.”
So, for all the promise exhibited by the pair of covermen, an obvious logic persists that they might be a barometer of a defense that seemed to slacken in the fourth quarter — a period where the Tigers allowed 942 passing yards and 60 points on the season. It became an acute issue after Bama’s rally, escaping an upset bid by Ole Miss and ended with Clemon’s comeback crescendo in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Ask Mills to elaborate on the cause of the sudden downward trajectory, and he pauses for a moment considering the question. And then he is at a loss, shaking his head for a couple seconds as if he’s trying to shake an answer loose.
“I really can’t say how it changed,” said Mills, who started every game last season. “It’s hard to answer the question.”
Lost in the autopsy for the secondary’s suddenly perforated state is the fact Mills more than held his own, snagging interceptions against Washington and Idaho. Or the 57 tackles that ranked fourth on the team. Don’t forget the equally precocious Collins, who added 30 stops and six pass break-ups, and his interceptions against Texas A&M and Ole Miss that set up LSU touchdowns.
The performances flip the uncertainty of a year ago for a quiet certitude of their roles now mentoring talented freshmen in Tre’Davious White, Jeryl Brazil and Rickey Jefferson.
“With me and Jalen, it’s just helped us so much — the good and the bad,” Collins said. “Now we have these young guys, and you can really coach them on the little things and what we had to learn. It’s given us a great advantage, made us know the system better.”
Contrary to popular stereotypes of cornerbacks as brash and brimming with confidence, the pair of Jalens approached their offseason with clear-eyed focus.
In Collins’ case, it meant focusing on “being patient with his jam” at the line and moving his feet to stay in front after bumping a receiver in press coverage. For Mills, cornerbacks coach Corey Raymond wanted him to focus on getting his eyes and head in the right position.
Then there’s copious study of the playbook.
“I wanted to know our defense, know our (techniques), know the alignments,” Mills said. “I wanted to know it so the game would slow down in front of me.”
Fitting, that goal to slow down the blur in front of him. With the proliferation of hurry-up, spread attacks in the SEC, instant recall isn’t handy. It’s a necessity.
“When teams are going tempo against us, it’s not an issue,” Mills said. “You want to get in your spot, know what to do and no think to much. It should be there. I really focused on the mental part.”
And so the path leads back to the gaffe against Alabama.
Mills tacked up to enduring images of that November night in his locker. A largely empty Tiger Stadium, except for a crimson-clad mass reveling in the afterglow. The other: McCarron beaming with his hand raised and index finger pointing into the night.
Any morning where the final spring of 110 meters seemed excessive, Mills knew he’d walk up to his quarters and remember he and McCarron shed tears for different reasons.
“You have to look at those and live with them,” Mills said. “It puts you in a mood. Gosh, I missed that play. Maybe this last sprint will make the difference. Maybe it’s this last rep.”