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February 6, 2014

Raekwon could run the show

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When Raekwon McMillan sauntered into the Biggs Lobby of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, the first thing he did was survey the airy chamber and the frenzy within it otherwise known as National Signing Day.

The second thing the Ohio State freshman linebacker seemed to notice was the dozens of reporters madly moving about with their cameras, their tripods and their recorders as they mobbed newly-minted assistant coaches Chris Ash and Larry Johnson.

Then, amid the chaos, he saw their eyes shift toward him while he slid in near the back of the room wearing a red, team-issued crew neck sweatshirt. After all, they were here to talk to him -- among others -- on this day.

Certainly, attention comes with being a five-star prospect. Attention comes with being the top-ranked linebacker in the class of 2014 and attention comes with being the bellwether of coach Urban Meyer's top-five incoming crop of players.

But this -- judging by the bashful smile and utter look of wonderment on his face while making his way to a roundtable to be peppered with questions -- was different.

McMillan, who hails from Hinesville, Ga., and its listed population of less than 35,000, comes to Columbus steeped in expectations. He's supposed to add depth to a shallow and depleted group of linebackers. He's supposed to be the answer to one of Meyer's greatest laments.

"The linebacker position is one that's going through an overhaul right now," the coach said Wednesday. "Far too many mistakes have been made in either lack of development or whatever and it's just not where we need to be."

It's a matter that equally afflicted Meyer in back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Clemson and during a historic 24 game winning streak that saw the Buckeyes graze the cusp of college football's mecca.

So Meyer, who's 24-2 but championship-less at Ohio State, went and convinced some of the nation's finest prep linebackers in McMillan, Dante Booker, Kyle Berger and Sam Hubbard to help mend a reeling defense and resuscitate a unit that once embodied the program.

"I'm putting pressure on them, coach Luke Fickell and myself to get ready for next year," Meyer said. "They have to play for us, in addition to the players we have on our roster already."

With the team's fluid depth chart -- one that needs to replace All-American linebacker Ryan Shazier, who declared for the NFL draft in January -- few will likely feel that tension like the 6-foot-3, 235-pound McMillan.

He's the crux of it all.

"The linebackers are the quarterbacks of the defense. Coach Fickell, he's coached some of the greatest linebackers in college football. I could start naming them: A.J. Hawk, James Laurinaitis, Bobby Carpenter. The list goes on and on," he said. "But, in the last three of four years, they haven't had that solid guy in the middle who can run the whole show. Yeah, we had some great players come through at linebacker who got drafted, but he's looking for that one guy that can run the whole show."

That one guy can be McMillan, though he can't rely on past plaudits.

"Every day I come in with the mindset that the five star stuff and high school really don't matter anymore. All that can be thrown in the trash can right now because I'm just a freshman in college right now who got here in January that nobody knew on the football team.

"I have to come in and work hard just like everybody else and make a name for myself."

But really, McMillan's name -- even for a freshman -- is familiar as any. Now he has to show why.

"Nothing's gonna be given to me. I gotta compete just like everybody else," he said. "Yes, I have a good chance to start but it's all gonna go to waste if I don't put in the work right now."

That might not be much of a problem for a player who says his high school coaches at Liberty County lent him a profound degree of ownership over their team.

"In high school I was told to run the defense on the field, make adjustments according to the offense on the field," he said. "The coach has to have trust in you and I felt like, in high school, everybody on my coaching staff trusted me."

It'll take time to forge that kind of relationship with Meyer and the Buckeyes' coaching staff.

"It's a standard here that you gotta come in, you gotta come in the weight room smiling every day, you gotta come on the field ready to work every day, give it all your all," he said. "Open up your chest and give the coaches your heart and let them train you."

Of course, it could pay dividends for McMillan -- who seems ripe with promise to be the next great Buckeye linebacker -- and Ohio State -- which needs him to live up to his lofty billing.

"Coming from a small town like Hinesville, Ga., you don't expect a lot of people to come around there," he said. "But high school is over now, man. It's time to get over to 107,000 people."

But first, it started in a frazzled and frenetic room Wednesday.

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