With a defense that returns two of its three starting linebackers from a national championship team, the learning process is now over.
For the most part.
The Ohio State football team returns senior linebacker Joshua Perry and redshirt-sophomore Darron Lee to the starting lineup for the Buckeyes in 2015, but sophomore Raekwon McMillan is set to make his first appearance as a full-time starter at middle linebacker in the upcoming season.
Perry, who led the Buckeyes in tackling during their title run, said he has seen McMillan improve in more ways than one as he transitions into a starting role.
“He is different in terms of how he has matured physically. Mentally, he is a little bit different too,” Perry said. “He is making a big push and we really do need him to be a great player and a great leader because of what Curtis (Grant) did last year. His development is coming along definitely.”
McMillan registered 54 tackles in his freshman campaign in Columbus, and said the support from Perry and Lee has helped with his development as a leader.
“The guys beside me, Josh and Darron, they put trust in me all the time. When we are on the field, I feel like those guys trust me so anything I say, we’re all on the same page together,” McMillan said. “And (co-defensive coordinator and linebackers) coach (Luke Fickell) has trust in all three of us on the field.”
Lee, who was just a three-star recruit coming out of high school, where he also played quarterback, said the camaraderie among the linebackers is great, even with McMillan taking on such a big role in a veteran-laden unit.
“Me and Raekwon have a great relationship. I have so much respect for him and he’s got so much respect for me,” Lee said. “He was a five-star (recruit). We call him the chosen one, just to mess with him.”
The trio is set to anchor a defense that returns five other starters from the championship team.
Fickell said motivating a team that has already reached the pinnacle is a challenge, especially with younger players like McMillan who have known only success at OSU.
“We have got to find a way that we can create some discomfort so that you can continue to grow. That’s one thing about that never-satisfied attitude,” Fickell said. “The Joshua Perrys of the world saw the struggles of Curtis Grant and they saw the struggles that we went through for a couple years. Some of those guys like Raekwon and others haven’t seen those struggles.”
Motivating McMillan has been a point of emphasis for Fickell, who said he is trying to motivate the Hinesville, Ga., native in “any way possible.”
McMillan, though, said the current defensive squad is even more hungry to improve now than it was last season coming off a loss in the Orange Bowl.
“This year, we have worked harder to start off in spring because we have been to the top. A team coming off a loss in the first round of the playoffs probably is not feeling as good,” McMillan said. “But us, coming off a national championship win, we feel like we got to exceed what we did last year and become a better team.”
For the current linebackers to continue to be successful, Fickell said there is one quality he has seen in linebacker groups from the past that he tries to instill in his current group.
“When you’ve got a great unit, you’ve got great competition,” Fickell said. “You look back and evaluate the units that I have been fortunate enough to be a part of here in the past. The biggest thing about them was the competitive nature and the competitiveness of the guys behind them that pushed them and made them better.”
The Buckeyes will likely continue to push each as spring practice is set to continue through April 18, which is the scheduled date for the annual Spring Game held at Ohio Stadium and the end of spring practice.
McMillan’s first official start is set to come against Virginia Tech on Sept. 7 in Blacksburg, Va., when the Buckeyes open the 2015 regular season.