When Ohio State lifted the first ever College Football Playoff National Championship trophy last January, they did it with a dominant defense that had largely been absent for the majority of the regular season. It's not like the Silver Bullets were terrible in the 2014 regular season, but holding the high flying Oregon Ducks to 20 points after giving up more than 20 points eight times in the regular season? Anyone who says they saw that beat-down in Dallas coming is crazy.
Regardless, the 2015 version of the Silver Bullets built on this end-of-season momentum on their way to finishing this season with the No. 2 scoring defense in the country, giving up just 14 points a game. The Buckeyes have done this with four new defensive starters, but you would've hardly known that with the way the defense has performed this year.
Former five-star Tommy Schutt has teamed up with Adolphus Washington to fill the void in the middle left by All-American Michael Bennett, Tyquan Lewis stepped up for Steve "I score touchdowns against Alabama" Miller by leading the Buckeyes in sacks, and Gareon Conley performed better than anyone could have imagined for former number one corner Doran Grant. Despite all of these great performances, there is one new starter that has outperformed the rest: Raekwon McMillan.
"He's aces, man. He's an even better person leading than a player, and he's a hell of a player. So that tells you what we got in that one. He's a guy that shows up every day (in football), and he does great in the classroom and in the community. He should be a team captain one day at Ohio State." -Urban Meyer
Raekwon McMillan arrived at Ohio State as arguably the most hyped recruit of the Urban Meyer era. "The Chosen One" became the nickname for the No. 1 ranked linebacker in the entire country, and for good reason. Standing 6'3 and weighing 235 lbs, McMillan combined ideal middle linebacker size with a staggering 4.6 forty time. All of these attributes are great and all, but when you combine ideal size and speed with the reckless abandon that one must have to pose for pictures while holding flaming logs, you get a five-star recruit with the best Ohio State linebacker name since Storm Klein.
What added to McMillan's hyped arrival in Columbus was Ohio State's then predicament at linebacker. Joshua Perry returned, but Ryan Shazier left for the NFL, and little known former high school quarterback Darron Lee was set to fill in for him. The real question mark was at middle linebacker, where the underwhelming (former five-star himself) Curtis Grant remained.
You have to hand it to Grant. McMillan did everything he could to take Grant's starting spot, but when it came time to decide who would play the big boy minutes against Alabama and Oregon, it was Grant who received the nod. This is not to say McMillan had a poor season -- 54 tackles, 7 TFLs, 2.5 sacks and a Pick 6 as a true freshman are plenty impressive -- but Grant was great himself, and a team captain to boot. Despite still playing a major role in a National Championship, McMillan still wasn't where he wanted to be at Ohio State.
"I was kind of uncomfortable last year, not being a starter...Starting your whole career and then coming to college and not being in the starting lineup, it made me work harder in practice. So I'm thankful for it." -Raekwon McMillan
After watching McMillan's 2015 campaign, it's safe to say he is no longer uncomfortable; 114 tackles, 4 TFLs and 1.5 sacks will do that for you. Perhaps even more impressively, McMillan has had three games this season where he has totaled 14 or more tackles. Those are some Andy Katzenmoyer numbers right there.
These great numbers perhaps still do not serve McMillan the justice he deserves. Flanked by two potential 2015 first round picks in Darron Lee and Joshua Perry, it was McMillan who was chosen as one of the country's five finalists for the Butkus Award, honoring college football's best linebacker.
While McMillan may not have the gaudy TFL or sack numbers that some linebackers are judged on, he has made his living as a sideline-to-sideline linebacker in the middle who is just as adapt at setting up the defense before the snap as he is flying past a pulling guard to make a tackle in the backfield. More than anything, McMillan does his job on a play-by-play basis, which may not always show up on the stat sheet, but when you have a defense full of future first round picks, sometimes the best play you can make is opening up an opportunity for a teammate.
"I'm just waiting for those guys to go make plays...Sitting out there and watching those guys go make plays, I'm happy for them. I think I'm happier for them when they make a play then when I go make a play for myself." -Raekwon McMillan
Raekwon loves making plays for his teammates, but this is an article on the plays McMillan himself makes. While he may not be asked to blitz as often as Lee, when McMillan is called on to make plays, he seldom disappoints.
Here Ohio State faces a 1st and 10 against a driving Western Michigan offense, and defensive coordinator's Luke Fickell and Chris Ash dialed up a nifty blitz to both utilize McMillan, and defensive lineman Joey Bosa, but not in either of their usual roles.
At the snap Bosa drops back into zone coverage. Why would one of the country's most feared pass rushers be asked to drop back into pass coverage? Because of the effect Bosa has on opposing team's blocking schemes just by being on the field.
If you notice above, there are four Broncos on the right side of the line to block only two Buckeyes. Western Michigan had slid their line towards Bosa (for good reason), but when he bailed into pass coverage, this put a lot of pressure on the left side of the Western Michigan offensive line to hold up against an the same number of Buckeyes.
None of this would have mattered however if it wasn't for the suffocating Buckeye coverage across the board. At this point in the play, Broncos' quarterback Zach Terrell is trying to get rid of the football, but there is simply no one for him to throw it to. His "hot" read (the receiver who runs a short route in the event of a blitz to give his quarterback a quick and easy completion) was taken away by Bosa dropping underneath the slot receiver's slant. All that was left to do for McMillan was to take his free shot directly at Terrell.
And take his free shot, McMillan did. A six yard sack was the result, but it took all three levels of the Buckeye defense to make the sack possible. With Darron Lee typically being the blitzing linebacker of choice, McMillan has still managed to make his impact known when he is given the opportunity.
"How many tackles should I make? Any tackle in the area or near a guy, I think I should make that tackle. I think I shouldn't miss any tackles. I think that's a better answer. I don't think I should miss any." - Raekwon McMillan
Going into this year's Ohio State-Michigan
massacre game, there was one Wolverine whose name kept coming up over and over again: Jabrill Peppers.
The Michigan defensive back/running back/returner was so hyped up going into this game that it almost seemed erroneous to expect anything short of a defining Michigan Wolverine performance from Peppers. Peppers didn't exactly shy away from the hype, he even found time in the lead up to the big game to write a 2,200 word column for the Player's Tribune! I personally don't know how Peppers found the time to write such a long and clean article between his academic and football commitments. I mean, this was during what was probably the busiest week of the Wolverine's season, so my only conclusion is that Player's Tribune editors (no, seriously) David Ortiz, Tiger Woods, and Blake Griffin found time to help perfect Pepper's column.
With Michigan in a 22 package (two tight ends, two backs) Ohio State shows literally no respect for the Wolverines running game, as the Buckeyes are content leaving their safeties eight yards off the ball to protect against the pass. This means it's up to the Ohio State front seven to control any runs -- and they did.
Peppers takes a hand-off around left end, and is immediately forced to string the run outside behind his fullback. McMillan did an excellent job of pressing the run, and by getting downhill so quickly he accomplished two goals. The first is that McMillan takes away Pepper's hole up the middle. It may appear above that Peppers had a cutback lane open, but he would have had to run over McMillan, which is a battle the 205-pound Peppers is not going to win.
The second goal McMillan accomplishes by getting downhill so quickly is that he now finds himself right at the point of attack. The ideal game play for Michigan here was for one of the lineman currently blocking defensive end Tyquan Lewis (to the left of McMillan) to transition off onto McMillan, but Lewis does a great job not giving in to the double team, and McMillan is able to scrape over top the potential block thanks to Lewis.
Fellow Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry also does a great job on this play by setting the edge. Peppers is fast, and if there is one thing defenses try to accomplish over anything else, it's not letting fast playmakers get to the outside. Perry refuses to get pushed around by the Michigan tight end, allowing McMillan to continue on his course to Peppers.
The only thing here that could have saved Peppers was if the Michigan fullback realized the play McMillan was making and diverted his course. Unfortunately (for Michigan) this wasn't the case, and the fullback tried to make a big block downfield on Ohio State safety Tyvis Powell instead.
The result is a measly two-yard gain for Peppers, thanks to McMillan's ability to move all over the field and finish off the tackle once he gets there.
McMillan doesn't expect himself to ever miss a tackle, and when you combine his prototypical size and speed with incredible football instincts and ability like he's shown all season long, opposing ball carriers shouldn't expect themselves to make McMillan miss either. It may still be too early to tell if McMillan will add his name to Ohio State lore with the likes of Shazier, Hawk, and Laurinaitis, but Raekwon has already made his mark on this year's team, and oh yeah: he's only a Sophomore.