Can McMillan run the defense?

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Last updated: 03/16/2014 3:20 AM
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Can McMillan "Run the Whole Show" on Defense?
By Tony Gerdeman

COLUMBUS, Ohio — There have been some hopeful words spoken around the Ohio State campus of freshman linebacker Raekwon McMillan since his arrival in January.

As the nation's #1 middle linebacker in the 2014 class, the Buckeye coaches are optimistic that McMillan has the goods to make his mark for the Silver Bullets sooner rather than later.

But exactly how soon might that be? Could McMillan eventually take the middle linebacker job from returning starter Curtis Grant, a rising senior, this coming season?

It wouldn't be the first time it's happened at Ohio State. Andy Katzenmoyer did it in 1996, and he happens to be the example that so many turn to when answering the question of whether or not McMillan, or any freshman, can start in the middle.

McMillan, like Katzenmoyer, comes at a time of need. The 1995 Ohio State defense was fresh off of a Biakabutuka butt-kicking, and they were looking to strengthen the middle of their defense. Katzenmoyer did that and more as a freshman, leading the team with 23 tackles for loss and 12 sacks.

The 2014 defense is coming off of a string of games in 2013 where tackling was optional and coverage was a premium add-on that they couldn't afford. Help is needed, and maybe it has finally arrived.

While nobody would ask or expect Katzenmoyer-type of production from McMillan, is it too much to ask for him to pick up the defense immediately? He doesn't seem to think so.

"I think I'll be able to get it pretty quickly because in high school I was told to run the defense on the field and told to make adjustments according to the offense on the field," McMillan said recently. 

"Your coach has to have trust in you. I felt like in high school, everybody on my coaching staff trusted me, and even if I did make a bad call on the field, I'll go 100 percent and fly to the ball. That makes up for a lot of errors."

When defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell was asked if he thought a freshman could win the job, he didn't rule it out.

"I don't know," he said initially. 

"He's in here early, which is a big help to him. We all believe, like I've said before, our best case scenario would be our seniors to play best, and however that happens, we have to try for that. But can a freshman do it? Yeah, he can. And if he's got some guys around him, that's what I'm kind of talking about. We're gonna keep it simple and make sure we focus on the things that our guys can do. We're going to get great looks from our offense on a daily basis, so it's definitely feasible."

Fickell is a good guy to ask about this possibility because not only is he the current Ohio State linebackers coach, he was also the nose tackle on that 1996 team where Katzenmoyer made such an impact.

As Fickell said, McMillan needs guys around him, and maybe just as much as his own talent, the talent around him is something a freshman must have in order to start in the middle.

In 1996, along with defensive tackle Winfield Garnett, Katzenmoyer was one of just two non-seniors in the front seven. He had Fickell, Mike Vrabel and Matt Finkes in front of him, and Ryan Miller and Greg Bellisari next to him. Behind him? Shawn Springs, Ty Howard, Damon Moore and Rob Kelly. Oh, and this little guy named Antoine Winfield at nickel who ended up being one of the best defensive players in Ohio State football history.

In other words, the 1996 defense was the perfect defense for a talented freshman to emerge and be allowed to play in such a carefree and yet directly violent manner.

Will the 2014 defense be similarly suited for another talented freshman to take over? There won't be nearly the amount of seniors, but there is some significant skill up front. The rest of the defense, however, still has some things to prove.

McMillan himself still has plenty to prove, and he's never just going to be handed the job. He has, however, come to Ohio State with the intention of playing early and playing often, regardless of the talent around him or in front of him.

"The linebackers are the quarterback of the defense," McMillan explained. 

"Coach Fickell, he's coached some of the greatest linebackers in college football. But in the last three or four years they haven't had that solid guy in the middle who can run the whole show. They've had some great players that have come through and got drafted, but he's looking for that one player who can run the whole show on defense."

Can McMillan be that guy to run the whole show this coming season?

His coaches are optimistic, but they are also realistic. Like Andy Katzenmoyer in 1996, Raekwon McMillan won't be able to do it alone.

But they are hoping he'll at least make things interesting, and maybe as interesting as they were nearly 20 seasons ago.

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