Raekwon McMillan has been the heart and soul of the Ohio State defense for the past two-plus seasons, but with the former team captain set to be selected in the 2017 NFL draft after declaring early, who will be the next middle linebacker for the Buckeyes?
McMillan finished his career being named a second team all-American after a solid junior season. The former five-star prospect out of Hinesville, Georgia came to Ohio State with huge expectations as he was the consensus top inside linebacker in the country in the 2014 recruiting class. The expectations were almost impossible to meet, but having number five in the middle of your defense leaves one less thing to worry about every Saturday.
A big part of being a leader of the defense is being a student of the game, being able to put teammates in the right places and knowing exactly where everyone should be. This is something McMillan excelled at, and something Ohio State with surely miss as they try to replace him in 2017. Voted a captain as a true junior, McMillan is a player who played his best in some of the biggest games, as seen by his last game against hated rival Michigan in which he tallied 16 tackles.
Urban Meyer will have a huge void to fill with all that McMillan was for Ohio State over the last three seasons, and there is a shortlist of players who will try to replace him.
The first name that comes to mind as a player that should step up and take that role on as middle linebacker at Ohio State is former five-star prospect Justin Hilliard out of St. Xavier high school in Cincinnati, Ohio. A player who out of high school was the 17th ranked player overall and the # 1 outside linebacker in the 2015 class, Hilliard has the talent but has yet to put it together as a Buckeye due to injury. If the 6’1″, 230-pound linebacker can live up to his billing and finally stay healthy, he will compete for the job come fall.
Dante Booker, (a player who started game one at outside linebacker for the Buckeyes) will be another player who will compete for playing time at middle linebacker next season. Booker was injured in the opener against Bowling Green, and after Jerome Baker player the game of his life a week later against Oklahoma, it was impossible to take him out the rest of the way.
Booker has the talent, as seen by him holding off a talent like Baker to remain the starter through the spring and fall camp before losing his job to injury. His biggest hurdle like Hilliard will be to stay healthy if he wants to compete for the job. The former 2013 Ohio Mr. Football will have his shot to get acclimated to the middle linebacker in the spring, but may stay on the outside if someone else can step up in the middle.
Baron Browning, a true freshman from Kennedale, Texas who will participate in spring practice after enrolling early is also a player that is a dark horse to win the starting middle linebacker spot come fall. Although only a freshman, Browning is one of the best linebacker prospects in the country, and will immediately press all of the Buckeye linebackers for playing time. ESPN ranked Browning the #2 outside linebacker in the 2017 class, and his combination of size and speed at 6’3″, 232 pounds makes him one the best athletes in the country. How fast Browning can catch on to the college game during the spring will determine if he is truly ready to start as a true freshman.
Ohio State is stocked with talent at linebacker, with a number of former high school All-American players vying to replace McMillan this fall. But can any of them truly fill that void, or will the Buckeyes struggle up the middle this season?
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