Few players have such a profound impact from the moment they walk on the field as junior linebacker Raekwon McMillan has had for Ohio State. The unquestioned leader at the helm of the “Silver Bullets,” OSU’s defensive nickname, McMillan has been named as a semifinalist for the Butkis Award, the top award for linebackers at the collegiate level.
Playing middle linebacker is an already daunting task for any team, but at OSU it is a key to the success for the Buckeyes. On Saturday’s game against Northwestern, McMillan reacted to a play action fake pass, which ultimately led to a turnover.
That relatively simple play might have seemed pedestrian to the outside eye, but the junior said otherwise to the media on Monday.
“I had the B-gap,” McMillan said. “So if the quarterback would have handed the ball to the running back in that situation, I would have had to tackle the running back in that gap. But it’s a mesh point, so the quarterback pulled the ball when he saw me come up. He’s kind of reading me the whole play to see if I’m going to be in my zone.”
McMillan said once he read the play, he reacted to Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson going back to pass and jumped in the way, causing the deflection that ended in an easy interception for redshirt freshman cornerback Damon Arnette.
Before every play, there is anywhere from a few moments to 25 seconds for the ball to be snapped, although most college teams put an emphasis on getting the ball snapped quickly. For a player like McMillan, those few moments before the play begins are vital in his role as the man in the middle.
About five seconds before the snap, McMillan is responsible for reading the offensive formation, among many other duties. To start, he has to get the call from co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, and relay that message to his unit and the defensive line in front of him to set them up in the proper stance. He also said from there, he is usually directing the strongside linebacker as well as the “backside safety.”
“Once I’ve communicated to them, that’s when I go through the eyes, feet and body positioning with their line and see if I can get some keys on the play they’re going to run,” McMillan said. “Once I get that, then I’m in a different mode. It’s time to lock in, it’s time to go make the play.”
That list of responsibilities could easily result in the occasional slip-up. McMillan received scrutiny during and following the Wisconsin game after Badgers’ wide receiver Jazz Peavy ripped-up the Buckeyes defense in the first half with an end-around.
According to McMillan, he was just doing his job.
“When Wisconsin was running the jet-sweep, and everybody was saying I was getting misreads, like I clearly had the A-gap,” McMillan said through a smile.
If he were to bust off his trajectory and try to take out the sweep, he said he would not be doing his job. The commitment to staying true to his role and his assignment has caught the eye of his teammates.
Junior defensive end Jalyn Holmes, who came in the 2014 recruiting class with McMillan, looks up to him as a friend and as a leader.
“What do I do pre-snap?” he said when asked about his routine before a play. “Wait for Raekwon to tell me to do.”
McMillan has earned 51 total tackles so far this season, which is technically a “down” year for the Georgia native. Last season he had 74 tackles through eight games, as well as a sack. With some outside criticism being thrown his way, it would be easy for him to start worrying about his level of play.
Instead, McMillan plays it off with a grin and a joke.
“If I ask y’all, I’m having the worst season in the world,” he said.