COLUMBUS, Ohio — Before any given play starts, Raekwon McMillan goes through his checklist.
And the Ohio State middle linebacker often has fewer than 10 seconds to do so.
First, he gets the call from Ohio State defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Luke Fickell. “And then I relay the message to the guys in front of me,” McMillan says. “And the guys behind me.”
Depending on the offense’s formation, McMillan might have to realign the Buckeyes defensive linemen. After that, he’ll relay the coverage to SAM linebacker Chris Worley and safety Damon Webb.
“Once I communicate it to them,” McMillan says, “that’s when I go through the eyes and feet, the body formation of their line. See if I can get some keys on the play they’re about to run.”
“Once I get that, that’s when I’m in a different mode. That’s when it’s time to lock in, time to go back a play.”
But first: “Get the crowd hyped, get the crowd hyped,” McMillan says, raising his arms while mimicking his enthusiastic plea to 107,000 strong in Ohio Stadium to turn up the noise.
He remembers when he first tried to play the Ohio Stadium crowd like a puppet as a true freshman, during an otherwise forgettable game against Kent State in 2014. “The crowd didn’t really respond,” McMillan says with a smile. “Nobody knew me freshman year.”
Well, that’s not necessarily true.
A 5-star prospect hailing from Hinesville, Ga., McMillan arrived at Ohio State in 2014 as one of the most highly touted prospects of the Urban Meyer era. Not only did he choose to spend his college career in Columbus over southern powers Alabama and Clemson, but as a linebacker, he played one of the most talent-depleted positions on the Buckeyes roster.
“Especially to go down in the state of Georgia and pull out a player like that,” Meyer says, “that’s either 1, 1A or 1B on big signings that we’ve had.”
Despite the lofty expectations, it’s not a stretch to say that 2½ years into his college career, McMillan has lived up to the hype. In 2014, he essentially served as a co-starter on Ohio State’s College Football Playoff championship team. Last season, he tallied 119 tackles, 4 of which came for a loss and 1.5 sacks en route to being selected as a finalist for the Butkus Award.
Eight games into the 2016 campaign, McMillan is now a Butkus semifinalist, with 51 tackles on the nation’s sixth-ranked defense to his credit.
Suffice to say, he no longer has an issue pumping up Ohio Stadium. He’ll do so several times when the No. 6 Buckeyes host No. 10 Nebraska for a prime-time matchup of top 10 teams in the College Football Playoff rankings in Columbus on Saturday.
Despite the recognition, McMillan knows his numbers have taken a hit this season and he hears the criticism. When asked by a reporter earlier this week how he thought he was playing, the 2015 All-Big Ten selection replied, “If I asked y’all, I’m playing the worst season in the world.”
He then let out a laugh.
McMillan knows better than anyone. If you think he’s regressed just because his numbers have, you really don’t understand his role.
Life as a middle linebacker
Ask McMillan if he’s bothered by the criticism he receives — that he’s not worth the hype, that he posted empty stats a year ago — and he’ll tell you, “no,” often with a laugh.
He’ll also have an example ready of such inaccurate assessments.
Take for instance Wisconsin wideout Jazz Peavy’s six jet sweep handoffs against Ohio State in the Buckeyes’ 30-23 overtime beating of the Badgers three weeks ago. According to the critics, per McMillan, Peavy’s 70 rushing yards came as a result of the middle linebacker misreading the plays.
According to McMillan, however, assessing such blame isn’t always so simple.
“I clearly had the A-gap. If the running back got handed the ball in the A-gap and I ran to the jet sweep then,” McMillan shrugs, “I’m not doing my job.”
You can find the multitude of McMillan’s responsibilities in positive plays as well, like the pass he tipped in last weekend’s win over Northwestern, which set up an interception for Buckeyes nickel back Damon Arnette.
Watching with the untrained eye, McMillan’s lone assignment on the play appeared to be keeping tabs on Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson. In actuality, a lot more went into forcing the game-shifting turnover.
“No,” McMillan says, half laughing, half shaking his head. “I had the B-gap. So if the quarterback would have handed the ball to the running back, I would have had to tackle the running back in that gap. It’s a mesh point, so the quarterback pulled the ball when he saw me come up. He was kind of reading me the whole play to see if I was going to be in my zone. I had the gap and I had to be in that assigned position in the middle of the field.
“So I had to come up for the run and then once I read the mesh and seen that the quarterback pulled the ball, I had to get back and get a little bit of depth to help my nickel at the time on the inside route. I got back in my zone, tipped the ball up and (Arnette) made the play.”
Officially, McMillan didn’t receive credit for so much as a pass breakup on the play — although he would come back to nearly record his first interception of the season later in the game.
Just another day in the life of a middle linebacker.
“Not always being the flashy guy that gets the most accolades or whatever,” he says. “Just going out there every day and being the leader that I can be.”
It wasn’t always this easy for McMillan, although at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds he was physically fit to play immediately when he arrived at Ohio State as an early enrollee in the winter of 2014.
It also didn’t hurt that McMillan was as advanced mentally as he was physically.
“One of the most mature people I’ve ever seen come walking into a program as a young person,” Meyer said of McMillan earlier this week.
The Peach State native, however, couldn’t set the table for the Buckeyes defensive scheme as quickly as he does now. As a result, he and fellow former 5-star linebacker Curtis Grant formed a two-headed monster at linebacker, sharing playing time sometimes by the series throughout Ohio State’s run to a national title.
“It took more time,” McMillan says of his play-calling ability as a freshman.
Nevertheless, even as a plug-and-play type of player, McMillan’s potential was apparent. Appearing in all 15 games, he tallied 54 tackles, 6.5 of which came for a loss, 2.5 sacks and an interception against Maryland, which he returned for a touchdown.
From an impact standpoint, some of the numbers McMillan posted back then were more impressive than the ones he has now. But again, stat sheets can often be misleading when it comes to evaluating a middle linebacker.
Nowadays, after McMillan sets up the linemen in front of him, linebackers next to him and defensive backs behind him, he’ll often lock eyes with one of the opponents who will serve as his primary responsibility on the ensuing play. Such was the case when he keyed in on Saquon Barkley two weeks ago, moments before breaking up a pass attempt to the star Penn State running back on a wheel route.
Such pre-snap challenges for McMillan are now a common occurrence. But as a freshman?
“I couldn’t look at their eyes,” he says. “I was just trying to look at the sideline, get the call and play.”
‘Wait for Raekwon’
Making eye contact is no longer a problem for McMillan, who Meyer named a captain for the current campaign as soon as the 2015 season came to a close.
“As a mature player and a guy who’s been exposed to a lot of things, I’ve been blessed with the ability to see plays before they happen,” he says.”
Perhaps that’s where McMillan’s growth has been most apparent. With nearly double-digit duties on his pre-snap checklist, sometimes what he does before a play is more important than what he does during it.
Get the play. Call it out. Adjust the line. Set the secondary. Key in on clues.
Check, check, check, check and check. And that’s before taking into account commanding the Ohio Stadium crowd.
Comparatively, what are Buckeyes defensive end Jalyn Holmes’ responsibilities before each play?
“Wait for Raekwon to tell me to do,” Holmes says with a laugh.
Perhaps that’s why the criticism for McMillan is so confusing — in many ways, the junior captain has already done it all.
As a freshman, he made highlight reel plays, and a year ago he stuffed stat sheets. Now he’s doing the little things, allowing teammates like Jerome Baker — a fellow Butkus semifinalist — to shine in more obvious ways.
Despite the dip in statistical production, McMillan still possesses first-round potential as an NFL draft prospect. But for now, Ohio State’s middle linebacker isn’t worrying about the expectations from the outside.
The only noise that now matters to him is the sound Ohio Stadium makes when he raises his arms.