COLUMBUS, Ohio – Sam Hubbard. Tyquan Lewis. Jalyn Holmes. Nick Bosa. Robert Landers. Jerome Baker. Dante Booker. Chris Worley. Gareon Conley. Marshon Lattimore. Denzel Ward. Malik Hooker.
Go down the list of Ohio State defensive standouts from the Buckeyes’ 4-0 start and you’ll notice two things almost immediately. First is this: This defense is loaded with talent. Second? You forgot to think about the guy who is the centerpiece of it all.
Preseason All-American and Ohio State captain, middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan is playing so well you’ve not heard his name much in four games. Ignore the stats. Forget the fact that McMillan hasn’t had the flashy plays others have. He’s doing his job, and he’s doing it very well.
“We ask him to do a lot,” Ohio State linebackers coach Luke Fickell said of McMillan during a Monday press conference. “If you really look at even the career of James Laurinaitis, his senior year, he might not have gotten as much recognition – and I’m not saying Raekwon is a senior – but the reality is, sometimes as they get older, they’re so much better.”
Fickell’s assessment, as you may expect, is accurate. Over the first quarter of the Buckeyes’ season, McMillan quietly leads Ohio State in tackles with 27 but has only two tackles for loss and hasn’t played a part in any of the Buckeyes’ game-changing turnovers.
He’s solidly manning the middle of a defense that was among the nation’s most inexperienced groups coming into the season. McMillan’s job is to keep order and to put his teammates into a position to be successful. His presence – along with J.T. Barrett and Pat Elflein – was one reason why Urban Meyer was surprisingly and, if we’re being honest, oddly optimistic about this year’s team in spite of its significant inexperience.
“A little bit like the baseball metaphor, you need to be strong up the middle,” the Buckeyes head coach said at the Big Ten media days in July. “All eyes are on the center of your defense, and that’s the middle linebacker … we’re very strong.”
McMillan, a 6-foot-2, 243-pound junior, has played his part perfectly so far in 2016. He’s been the reliable centerpiece of a defense that’s allowed just two touchdowns in four games and his consistency in the middle has provided guys like Jerome Baker a chance to take some chances and make some big plays. Those are the risks McMillan himself was able to take when he was getting his first taste of playing time in 2014.
“There’s some young guys that don’t have the names, and maybe make some splash plays, but the reality is (McMillan is) playing at a very high level,” Fickell said. “He allows us to do a lot of things. He allows us to be simple in what we do, and allows him to make checks and things off of formations that people outside wouldn’t have any idea.”
The precedent for this kind of quiet leadership has been set in Columbus, and not just with the aforementioned Laurinaitis, who burst onto the stage like McMillan did early in his career before settling into more of a controlled role as he grew older. As respect around the Big Ten grows, you get fewer people taking shots at you. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing the things that need to be done.
Fickell drew an interesting parallel to another Ohio State legend, one who didn’t play linebacker. “Like I said, there’s not as many splash plays,” Fickell said. “Shawn Springs was defensive player of the year here in 1996, in the Big Ten, and he had zero (interceptions). How does a guy with zero picks become player of the year in the Big Ten? Because people respected him that much, they didn’t throw at him. We know the value of that to our defense.”
What the 18-year assistant was saying is this: Numbers don’t tell the whole story. You’re not hearing McMillan’s name because he’s playing middle linebacker and leading the young Buckeyes as well as anyone could.
“I think ultimately you’ve got to have a guy that’s a leader and a guy who builds the confidence of everybody around them,” Fickell concluded. “We have a definition for leadership, at least in the linebacker room for sure. ‘Leaders make others around them better.’
“From everything they do. From how they act, how they work, how they hold themselves, there’s no greater example to making others around them better, as Raekwon McMillan. He’s a humble guy, he works at it, he’s an example every single day and he’s playing at a high level.”