As an early enrollee who was a favorite of every recruiting service, the Georgia native was grilled about his potential. With a chance to play spring ball, he would have every opportunity to make his case for early playing time in the fall. The promise seemed especially ripe given Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer’s professed goal of using fewer redshirts this season.
“Coach Meyer always tells us he wants the incoming freshman to play early,” he said. “He wants us not to sit back and relax and just wait for the next guy to leave, but to practice every day like you're competing for a job. Attack every drill like it's your last drill.
“I know that nothing is given at Ohio State. I have to come in and work just like everybody else.”
It didn’t come as easily as some thought it might be. McMillan came in as a highly touted middle linebacker, and that spot happened to be occupied by senior Curtis Grant, who by his own admission hadn’t lived up to the lofty expectations placed on his own shoulders as a one-time five-star recruit.
Grant was assigned to be McMillan’s big brother, his roommate at fall camp and the upperclassman charged with making sure that he loses his black stripe to signal he’s a full member of the team. Along with fellow early enrollee Curtis Samuel, he was the first member of the class of 2014 to shed that mark of a true freshman. At the same time, though, Grant was in the middle of a resurgence that he credited in part to the motivation provided by his new competition.
Toward the end of fall camp, Grant had fully secured his starting role and was taking all of the snaps with the first team instead of splitting reps with McMillan.
“It’s hard coming out of high school and trying to play,” Grant said. “I tell him every day, ‘Don’t get worried, your time is going to come.’ You have to show the coaches a lot – especially coming from high school, because they already have their trust in older kids and you have to gain their trust. His time is coming, like I tell him every day.”
Meyer continued to talk up McMillan when listing the top performing freshmen, and it seemed likely that he would spell Grant for at least a few plays in the season opener against Navy. Whether it was the unique scheme of Navy or something else, those snaps never materialized.
McMillan found the field for a couple of special teams plays at the end of the game but never lined up at linebacker for a defensive snap.
“As a freshman, it’s kind of weird going into the first game,” junior linebacker Joshua Perry said. “Coaches (are) telling you, ‘Be ready, be ready,’ but you never quite know what to expect. Whether either one of them had more expectations of playing, I don’t know, but they were great guys to have around because they were locked in on every possession as though they were going into the game whether or not they actually did. They were telling us exactly what they saw. They were locked in on special teams just in case they had had to step in and do something like that, and Raekwon did a couple of times. I think that’s one big key that we wouldn’t have had a couple years ago, freshmen that are so locked in and ready to jump in and make adjustments.
“It’s tough because as a starter here you don’t want to give up your job, so you’re holding on for dear life. As a guy who’s trying to play here, you’re scratching and clawing. Everything starts in practice, so if you take the right approach to preparation and show everybody what you can do or if you’re on special teams and play really well, your playing time just goes up.”
Almost everyone else on the Ohio State defense has fought that battle at some point in their career. Even Joey Bosa and Vonn Bell, a pair of five-star products, needed time to work their way into the starting lineup. While the games are what count for the team, victories on the individual level are often won on the practice field.
“You have to make every play come to you and show the team and show the coaches why you want to start and why you need to start,” Bell said. “You have to show that throughout each and every day.”
Meyer said in his Monday press conference and reiterated throughout the week that he has to find a way to get McMillan on the field against Virginia Tech. Whether or not that actually happens remains to be seen. For his part, the freshman has acknowledged and accepted the steep climb he faces in trying to crack the starting lineup.
“It’s truly a blessing to have all the accolades I came in with, but those are high school accolades,” he said at Ohio State’s media day on Aug. 10. “I have a new start here at Ohio State. Everything I had in high school is gone now. I’m not the guy I was my senior year in high school. Now I’m a freshman in college and I have to build back up.”