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Alabama seeks more big plays from WR Jermaine Burton in Rose Bowl

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Jermaine Burton already has what his Alabama teammates hope to earn. The senior wide receiver won a national championship at Georgia in 2021.

If the No. 4 Crimson Tide are going to advance to the College Football Playoff title game on Jan. 8, the big plays Burton can create might be the difference in getting there.

Burton goes into the Rose Bowl against No. 1 Michigan on Monday averaging 22.2 yards per catch, which ranks second in the FBS among qualifying players. He has three touchdowns of 40 or more yards, including a 68-yarder against Auburn, among his team-leading eight scoring grabs.

“We knew he had big play ability,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “He certainly has done an outstanding job for us in terms of not just explosive plays but in terms of the position, top to bottom.”

Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said Burton’s ability to track the ball in the air is one of the key reasons for those big gains.

“He’s made some catches down the field where whether they’re contested or he had to turn his body a certain way, his ability to track and react to balls really helps our ability to push the ball down the field,” Rees said.

Burton’s exceptional vision allows him to be aggressive in attacking any pass headed his way, wide receivers coach Holmon Wiggins said.

“He sees the ball in the air, he feels like it’s his and only his, and he goes up and gets it,” Wiggins said.

Burton isn’t the only Alabama receiver capable of stretching the field. Isaiah Bond has three touchdown catches of 40 or more yards, to say nothing of the 31-yard scoring grab against the Tigers nicknamed “ The Gravedigger ” that saved the season.

“When you have a great threat like Jermaine Burton, it’s only gonna get players like me open and Kobe Prentice and Malik Benson as well,” Bond said.

The collection of pass catchers is one of the reasons Rees has been more reliant on big plays in his first season at Alabama compared to his previous three seasons at Notre Dame. Quarterback Jalen Milroe’s ability to move in the pocket is another.

Having come into his redshirt sophomore season known for his ability as a runner, Milroe has improved at how, when and where to move in the pocket to create throwing lanes, Rees said.

“As you step up, your vision becomes cleaner,” Rees said. “We had a touchdown against Kentucky on a third down where he stepped up to the right, hit KP on a deep cross. He views himself as a passer, which he is.”

Prentice’s 40-yard score against the Wildcats is one example of a shot play Milroe has been able to make on third down. It is a strength of the offense for Rees.

“We’ve been actually pretty explosive on third down, which when you feel like you can dictate coverage a little bit, you have opportunities to get the ball down the field and find ways to get guys open, and I feel like we’ve done that pretty well this year,” Rees said.

Whether Alabama can generate those same looks against one of the stingiest pass defenses in college football is another matter.

The Wolverines ranked second nationally in pass defense, allowing 152.6 yards per game. Opponents generated 5.8 yards per attempt, which was the sixth-best mark among 133 teams.

However, three of the seven passing touchdowns allowed by Michigan covered at least 35 yards.

Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter wants to keep the opposing offense in front of the Wolverines.

“If they’re gonna score, make ’em run 14 plays in a row,” Minter said. “You have 18- to 22-year-olds. There’s a probability factor there where the more you make them snap it, the more chance that they might screw it up. So big-play prevention goes hand in hand with that, and it’s a huge piece of the game.”

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