At first, Raekwon McMillan wasn’t sure how to handle the attention.
Cameras snapped, he was peppered with constant questions and recorders beeped as reporters and photographers formed a circle around the crown jewel of Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer’s 2014 recruiting class.
“Just for the first day, (we) had a hard day of workouts, (and) coming in after hours to do interviews — it’s pretty crazy,” the true freshman linebacker said on National Signing Day Feb. 5, hardly looking up as he spoke.
Hailing from Hinesville, Ga., McMillan was rated the nation’s top-rated linebacker by Rivals.com and ESPN and received offers from perennial powers like Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Clemson, OSU and others. After ultimately choosing to become a Buckeye Dec. 16, he quickly became the guy everyone wanted a piece of on National Signing Day.
McMillan represents one-fourth of the group of players faced with the responsibility to help fill the void left by first-team All-American and All-Big Ten conference performer junior Ryan Shazier, who declared for the 2014 NFL Draft Jan. 4. He was also the first player’s name Meyer mentioned on Signing Day.
OSU’s head man did not sugarcoat how McMillan — along with other incoming freshmen linebackers Kyle Berger, Dante Booker and Sam Hubbard — are to be depended on during what Meyer called an “overhaul” at the position.
“Far too many mistakes have been made either in lack of development or whatever, and it’s just not where we need to be,” Meyer said of OSU’s defense. “I’m putting pressure on them, (defensive coordinator and linebackers) coach (Luke) Fickell and myself to get ready for next year. They have to play for us, in addition to the players we have on our roster already.”
Those currently on the roster in the linebacker position who saw significant playing time last season include sophomores Joshua Perry, Joe Burger and Camren Williams and junior Curtis Grant. Perry is the only returning player who played in all 14 games last season, finishing fourth on the team in tackles with 64. Grant and Williams both played in 13 games and Burger saw action in five.
Shazier, who led the Big Ten with 143 tackles, will be difficult to replace, but the fact that Meyer recruited four linebackers for 2014 makes it clear he is looking to lean on them for production.
McMillan said Meyer told him that he would have a chance to play early in his career when he was recruiting him, but the future linebacker knows nothing is guaranteed.
“Coach Meyer, he always tells us that he wants incoming freshmen to play early. He wants us not to sit back and relax and wait for the next guy to leave out. But to practice every day like you’re competing for a job and attack every drill like it’s your last drill … (playing early) was implemented, but I know that nothing is given at Ohio State and I have to come in and work just like everybody else,” McMillan said.
McMillan is listed at 6 feet 2 inches tall and 242 pounds, leading co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash to comment on his stature.
“He looks like a big-time linebacker. It’s what he looks like,” Ash said on National Signing Day. “Now, we’ll see what he plays like, but he looks the part.”
McMillan racked up 159 total tackles during his senior year at Liberty County High School, to go along with 16.5 sacks, three interceptions and 10 forced fumbles. That kind of production caused an explosion over where he was going to choose to play in college, something McMillan called “crazy.”
“Coming from a small town like Hinesville, Ga., you don’t expect a lot of people to come around there and see you play football,” McMillan said. “It was very fun, but high school’s over with now man, it’s time to get on to 107,000 people.”
The excitement was merited though, as McMillan even said himself that it could have gone “either way at the end,” regarding where he was going to play football in 2014. In the end, he said OSU felt right.
“I mean every time I visited Ohio State, I felt like it was the place for me. Everything about it was great, Coach Meyer and the coaching staff … he’s put together one of the best coaching staffs in the nation and I really like working with these guys,” McMillan said.
OSU finished 47th in the country last season in defense, giving up an average of 377.4 yards per game, but on the other end of the spectrum, was 112th in the country in pass defense, giving up 268 yards per game.
At times, the criticism from fans fell on the shoulders of Fickell, something McMillan said he didn’t understand.
With the expectation that OSU should compete for championships at the end of every season, Ash said the team cannot accept mediocrity.
“You have to be able to play great defense to be able to win it all,” Ash said. “You don’t have to be the best defense in the country, but you’ve got to be pretty darn solid to be able to say you’re going to win 14 games in this league to win it all. You can’t have an average, to subpar defense to get that done.”
Whether or not the Buckeye defense will improve enough for national title aspirations to come to fruition is likely to fall on the broad shoulders of McMillan — but if that’s the case, it appears the freshman is up for the task.
“I mean, the linebackers are the quarterbacks of the defense,” McMillan said. “Coach Fickell, he’s coached some of the greatest linebackers in college football. I could start naming them: A.J. Hawk, James Laurinaitis, Bobby Carpenter, the list goes on and on. But in the last three or four years, they haven’t had that solid guy in the middle who can run the whole show. Yeah they’ve had some great linebackers who’ve come through and got drafted, but he’s looking for that one guy who can run that whole show on defense.”
McMillan’s first opportunity to show what he can do is Aug. 30, when OSU is scheduled to take on Navy at M&T Bank Stadium.