Raekwon McMillan is a tricky evaluation. Early in the 2016 season, the former 5-star recruit showed great promise in his second year as a full time starter for the Ohio State Buckeyes. McMillan looked aggressive, brutalizing and quick on his feet. Through the middle chunk of the season, mostly through Ohio State’s conference schedule, McMillan began to stumble. He had lost the tenacity and power that made him a force earlier in the season.
Many have speculated that McMillan was dealing with nagging injuries. This happens all the time in football, mostly with good players because a good starter at 80% tends to be better than the backup at 100%. For example, nagging injuries have also been suspected to be the issue with Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, who struggled this year after having an unbelievable season in 2015.
To his credit, McMillan managed to find his strength during the home stretch and finish out the season with a couple of quality performances versus Michigan and Clemson. He looked like himself again and put a nice bow on an already decorated college career.
McMillan was a superstar before he stepped onto campus in Colombus, Ohio. As a recruit out of Liberty County High School in Hinesville, Georgia, McMillan was the 22nd rated player in the 2014 class, including being ranked first at his linebacker position and the second overall player in the state.
As a freshman in 2014, McMillan was a steady contributor throughout Ohio State’s title run and even made a few plays in the championship game versus the Oregon Ducks. McMillan then assumed a started role for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. McMillan became a leader for the Buckeyes defense in 2016 after the Buckeyes lost many of their veteran starters. Despite his youth, McMillan took to the role well and was a strong leader for the Buckeyes, both as an emotional leader and an example of resiliency.
Statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.
When he’s healthy and on his game, McMillan is a force. Middle linebackers have to be aggressive and be able to eat alley blocks. More often than not, it is the middle linebackers who is going to have to take on a fullback or an H-Back in the alley, and the middle linebacker has to be able to stump that blocker and hold his ground at the line of scrimmage. McMillan has enough instincts, burst and power to do just that.
This might be a felony in some states. McMillan absolutely obliterated this poor fullback. But let’s rewind for a second and break down how this all happened, and why McMillan’s efforts were nullified by the shortcomings of his team.
Wisconsin was running a split zone concept with a trap on the 1-tech (#53 on the defense). The left tackle and left guard both step to the left to work zone to their side, while the center, right guard, right tackle and tight end step to their right to work zone to that side. The center leaves #53 unblocked off the line of scrimmage, only the wing player (#44) to cross the formation and pin him out of the play; #53 is trapped into over-pursuing up field and being cut off by the wing player.
When the left guard and center split off to different directions, McMillan sees where the play is going. It is then McMillan’s job to get downhill and secure his portion of the line of scrimmage, and he does. McMillan gets within two yards of the line of scrimmage as the running back takes the ball and closes quickly on the fullback. At the point of contact, McMillan does his job by attacking the fullback with his playside shoulder, keeping his own body free to make a play vs a cutback and spill the running back toward the other linebacker.
Unfortunately for McMillan, the rest of Ohio State’s defense got murdered on this play. The left tackle abuses the defensive end, the left guard gets a good push on McMillan’s fellow linebacker and the cornerback is too slow to recognize that it is a run play. Everything around McMillan collapsed, but he did what he was supposed to do.
Winning at the Second Level
The best linebackers consistently beat offensive linemen to their spots. Not every linebacker is capable of that, though, and those linebackers must be able to compensate by properly handling blocks. McMillan is not the type of linebacker to always win the foot race, but he can often find a way to win the play after losing the foot race.
McMillan was not slow to his spot on this play, but he didn’t beat the lineman there, either. Without being able to win the play before contact, McMillan has to be able to absorb the block, reestablish his own base and continue to work toward the play. McMillan put all of those abilities on display against Michigan.
Upon contact, McMillan punches the lineman’s chest, stays low and drives toward his assignment gap. McMillan maintained the natural leverage advantage he had versus the blocker and was able control the blocker as he pleased. With each step after the initial contact, McMillan used the blocker he was controlling to close the gap that the running back thought he had in front of him. The gap closed completely by the time the runner got there, forcing him to hesitate and get tripped up by another Buckeyes linebacker.
Linebackers too often lose this play when they are put in the position that McMillan was on this play. Not every play can be won before contact, and McMillan has added value in the fact that he can salvage plays that have the potential to turn sour.
Catching Instead of Crashing
For as aggressive and powerful as McMillan is, he doesn’t always take the right approach. There are times where McMillan tries to see a play through longer than he should, leaving him to end up “catching” offensive linemen instead of “crashing” them.
This play is not a disaster. In fact, McMillan did a fine job and helped prevent a more damaging run. McMillan could have nuked this play, though.
McMillan had a chance to blow up the left guard and potentially keep this play in the backfield. Initially, McMillan makes the right read and does a good job of flowing quickly to the correct gap. The mistake happens at the point of attack, where McMillan pumps the brakes and sits at the line of scrimmage to hold outside leverage on the guard.
Instead of slowing down to absorb the contact, McMillan could have continued barreling through the gap, beaten the lineman to the spot by about a half of a step and then clamped down inside. Whether or not that would have saved any yardage on this particular play, being more assertive in this situation gives the defense a better chance of stopping the play before it really begins.
Just to clarify, this is a little nit-picky. Even without being assertive in this instance, McMillan made a fine play that helped contain one of college football’s most explosive ball carriers, Jabrill Peppers.
More To Be Desired
McMillan has many of the skills that it takes to be a top level linebacker, but he isn’t a special athlete. McMillan’s best athletic traits are his short area burst when moving downhill and the strength in his lower body. More than likely, he is a player who will have impressive jump tests at the NFL Combine.
McMillan is not a quick or rangy athlete, though. His feet can be slow to get going off of the snap and his change of direction can be problematic. In addition, McMillan is not a true sideline-to-sideline player. His speed isn’t poor, per say, but there are going to be times where he gets beat to the perimeter and it’s up to coaches and general managers to decide if they are willing to live with that. It won’t kill McMillan—just as it hasn’t killed Vontaze Burfict—but it is a blemish on an overall quality skill set.
Raekwon McMillan is a good-not-great middle linebacker prospect. Between his adequate ability to read plays, power in his lower body and strong tackling, McMillan has the necessary skills to start at middle linebacker. On top of all of those traits in the run game, McMillan is a proficient player in coverage. At the same time, McMillan’s average movement skills and hot/cold aggression should prevent him from being an upper echelon player.
As of now, it looks like McMillan would have to be the Rams’s second round pick. NFL teams love former five star recruits, especially one who has contributed in every season while in college. It’s tough to imagine a scenario where a productive former 5-star recruit falls too far, even if he’s not terribly athletic and is apart of a loaded linebacker class. McMillan wouldn’t be a sexy pick for the Rams, but he has what it takes to reestablish the second level of the defense.