Simply playing football at Ohio State carries a considerable amount of hype, but there’s an extra layer of expectation reserved for the brightest recruits. In 2012, the nation’s fifth-ranked recruit Noah Spence signed with the Buckeyes. Five-star safety Vonn Bell was the crown jewel of the team’s 2013 recruiting class. Both Spence and Bell went on to be drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL draft, and 2014’s No. 1 overall linebacker recruit, Raekwon McMillan, is about to join them.
“When we roll into games as the underdog, like we were my freshman year, we were trying to prove to the world that Ohio State is the best team in the nation, and we were.”
You may have heard, but most true freshman do not play under Urban Meyer. 17 of 24 true freshman redshirted in 2013, 14 of 23 in 2014, and a whopping 21 of 25 in 2015. Even the freshmen that did play were mostly limited to special teams aside from a select few players, including McMillan.
McMillan had a chance to seize the mike linebacker role from senior captain Curtis Grant, but Grant managed to hold off the true freshman and played brilliantly for the Buckeyes down the stretch. Still, McMillan actually played more total snaps than Grant and he finished eighth on the Buckeyes with 54 tackles.
McMillan showed a knack for making splash plays, as he took an interception to the house against Maryland and racked up seven tackles for a loss. His rare blend of size and athleticism was on full display during Oregon backup quarterback Jeff Lockie’s single snap of the National Championship:
McMillan’s performance that beautiful Monday night has resulted in an incredible amount of Marshon Lattimore mistakes, but it proved to be just the beginning of something special. McMillan started from day one as a sophomore and emerged as a key player on a defense that featured six NFL draft picks from the 2016 Draft alone. Overall, he led the team and ranked fourth in the Big Ten with 119 tackles. McMillan’s spectacular season earned him first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-American recognition.
We saw much of the same from McMillan this season: consistent excellence. Another 100-plus tackles. Another season where opponents averaged fewer than four yards per carry on the ground. More first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-American recognition.
It seemed like Buckeye Nation took McMillan’s excellence for granted at times, but he clearly earned a spot among the greatest Ohio State linebackers with his performance against Michigan.
"No, I don't root for them ... No. I mean, as a player and as our rival, I really just don't root for them at all. It's not a thing that I do, and I don't feel like anybody at our university should, either. It is what it is.”
— Raekwon McMillan on if he rooted for Michigan to beat Iowa prior to The Game.
McMillan’s attitude towards the Wolverines is almost as exceptional as his performance on the field was on November 26, 2016. He tied his career-high with 16 tackles and repeatedly made big stops in a game that was full of them. McMillan’s play helped earn the Buckeyes the first touchdown of The Game:
McMillan shot into the backfield on a delayed blitz, as he did an excellent job at redirecting himself into the open gap. He was able to get to the quarterback before the running back could slide over, and Malik Hooker took care of the rest.
While McMillan would’ve liked to finish his career with another national championship trophy, he was still spectacular during his final game. Overall, he led the team with 15 tackles, including 12 solo stops and a sack during Ohio State’s Orange Bowl loss to Clemson.
“He’s exceeded every expectation. I’ve had very few like that. From day one, when he walked on campus, he was a grown man.”
McMillan’s on-field play was more than enough to earn him a spot on an NFL roster, but analysts began to nitpick his play in the lead up to the combine. “Sources” questioned whether or not he could defend the pass, and there were concerns on if he could be a three-down linebacker at the next level.
McMillan’s 4.61-second 40-yard dash was the third-highest mark among all linebackers (ha). He added a solid 23 reps on bench and showed some athleticism that viewers apparently thought he was lacking.
In reality, McMillan proved time-and-time again that he was more than capable of holding up against the pass. Ohio State played a ton of man coverage this season which often featured two cornerbacks, as well as a safety, locked up with three receivers. This left the Buckeyes’ linebackers to deal with opposing running backs.
It usually made sense for outside linebackers Chris Wormley and Jerome Baker to cover opposing running backs due to their outside alignment, but McMillan showed he has the wheels and ball skills to run with some of the nation’s best players when necessary:
Saquon Barkley is pretty good at football, but McMillan was able to identify the wheel route, avoid being picked, and ultimately break up the pass. His comfort in deep coverage shows, as he was able to avoid interfering with Barkley and didn’t shoot his hand up until the moment the ball arrived.
Of course, McMillan thrives against the run, but isn’t that the case with almost every elite middle linebacker? At 6’2” 240 pounds, McMillan was put on this earth to eliminate running backs and that’s exactly what he did his entire career against the best competition out there:
McMillan does a great job deciphering the play in the above clip and is able to make the tackle against Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon. Depending on character concerns, Mixon could wind up being among the top-three running backs drafted this April, but he’s far from the most impressive back that McMillan has faced. Tevin Coleman, Jordan Howard, Melvin Gordon, Derrick Henry, C.J. Prosise ... the list goes on, and despite various amounts of success among the group, one thing remained clear: McMillan more than held his own against the best competition the country had to offer.
“Last three years, last three, four years of my life, it's been everything ... Everything that I give my time to, my effort, my energy to has been Ohio State.”
McMillan declared a year early for the NFL draft and it’s easy to see why. Having won a national championship, all-american recognition, and three pairs of golden pants, there really wasn’t anything more for McMillan to accomplish in Columbus. His name will almost assuredly be announced in the first two days of the NFL Draft this April. Regardless of how his career turns out at the next level, one things is clear: Raekwon McMillan deserves to have his name mentioned aside the best Ohio State linebackers of all time.