At this time last year, the linebacker group at Ohio State was one of the question marks entering the season.
A year later, it is arguably the strongest unit on the Buckeye defense that returns two of three starters including last year’s leading tackler, senior Joshua Perry.
Sophomore Raekwon McMillan is set to fill in for the departed starter, middle linebacker Curtis Grant, and while McMillan will be entering his first year as a full time starter, sophomore linebacker Darron Lee said he is prepared to take the reins.
“He knows what we are doing. He takes leadership, he takes command,” Lee said Wednesday. “He is not a mouthy type of guy. He leads by example and everybody else follows, and the defense follows.”
McMillan came to OSU as one of the top 50 prospects in the nation according to Scout.com and was highly touted when he arrived on campus. However, he has recently talked to a former Buckeye who wasn’t as highly recruited for advice.
McMillan, who tallied 54 total tackles as a true freshman in 2014, said he has spoken to former three-star recruit and current St. Louis Rams star James Laurinaitis to get advice on how to improve his game. It’s a good place to look for advice – Laurinaitis spent three years as the team’s starting middle linebacker from 2006-08.
“I spent a lot of time talking to him this offseason. Just talking to him and picking his mind about things like our defense and some of the things he did when he was in college,” McMillan said. “It really brings you back to earth to see a three-star, a guy who wasn’t heavily recruited. … I was heavily recruited so that’s where we’re different, but there are so many things we have similarities in.”
While McMillan said he asked Laurinaitis about the inner workings of a defense, there was one particular thing Laurinaitis said that stuck with him.
“When I told him I wanted to be as good as him one day, he told me he wants me to be better than him,” McMillan said. “For a guy who’s at the top of middle linebackers in the NFL, it’s really amazing for him to look at me and say he wants me to be better than him.”
While McMillan may not be on Laurinaitis’ level yet, the young linebacker does have his sights set on something that used to belong to the former Buckeye.
“My biggest goal for me is to be the captain of the defense, to be out there when guys can trust me and look at me when we’re in hard times,” McMillan said. “That’s one of my goals. One of my goals isn’t to be the best linebacker in the world, it’s together for our defense to be the best in the nation.”
While it is uncommon for a sophomore to be named a captain, McMillan’s position coach, Luke Fickell, said Wednesday that the Hinesville, Ga., product hit his stride a couple of weeks ago when it came to taking control of the defense.
“I have seen a difference in him since maybe midway through the summer,” Fickell said. “I have seen the maturity, that ability to be a true leader to lead the Silver Bullets. I think he’s got what it takes.”
Lee, who was third on the team in tackles with 81 last season, agreed with his position coach and added that McMillan is even becoming a role model for players just a year younger than him.
“He has done a great job. I can’t really say anything bad about him. Raekwon has done a great job since Curtis Grant has left,” Lee said. “He is leading the defense, he is being a great example for the younger guys. That’s all we can really ask of him right now.”
Despite playing behind Grant most of last season, McMillan tallied just 15 less tackles than Grant and had 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, numbers that bested Grant’s production. Even though McMillan’s numbers are likely to climb in 2015, it is his leadership that will make or break the Buckeye defense, Lee said.
“He is the Mike linebacker of the defense so he has to be the leader,” Lee said. “If he is not the leader, we are not going to be the defense that we want to be.”