Ohio State Football: Inside the Buckeyes' Most Exciting Position Battle

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterAugust 12, 2014

Raekwon McMillan (No. 5) is making a push at the Buckeyes middle linebacker spot.
Raekwon McMillan (No. 5) is making a push at the Buckeyes middle linebacker spot.247Sports.com

Inside the walls of Ohio State's fall camp team hotel, it'd be tough to find two roommates with more in common than Curtis Grant and Raekwon McMillan.

Highly touted prospects during their prep playing days, both Grant and McMillan opted to spurn the south to spend their college careers at Ohio State, where playing time was seemingly readily available at linebacker. But their respective journeys have led them on a collision course in Columbus in what's arguably the most intriguing position battle for the Buckeyes this fall.

One player's trying to make a first impression, while the other's attempting to make the most of a last chance. But regardless who winds up starting for Ohio State at middle linebacker when the 2014 season kicks off on Aug. 30, it's easy to see how one of the most unique bonds on the Buckeyes roster has already come to fruition.

Three years ago Grant essentially was McMillan, a 5-star prospect and the top-ranked inside linebacker in the 2011 class. On national signing day, he announced that he'd be heading from Richmond, Virginia to Ohio State, where the Buckeyes were devoid of depth at the linebacker position.

From that standpoint, little had changed in Columbus eight months ago, when McMillan committed to Ohio State over Alabama and Clemson. Urban Meyer's pitch to the 5-star prospect from Hinesville, Georgia was clear—and reminiscent of the one that Grant received from Jim Tressel during his recruitment three years prior.

"Coach Meyer, when I was getting recruited, he made it clearly simple that we needed linebackers here at Ohio State," McMillan said. "He wants his type of guys here playing linebacker."

It'd be simple—perhaps even easy—to state that Grant isn't one of Meyer's "guys," but that's not necessarily the case. In fact, Meyer attempted to recruit Grant while he was the head coach at Florida, as he often did with the country's top prospects.

Curtis Grant admittedly hasn't lived up to lofty expectations in his college career.
Curtis Grant admittedly hasn't lived up to lofty expectations in his college career.247Sports.com

But while it was the Buckeyes' pitch of immediate playing time that won out for Grant, he found himself limited to predominately special teams play in his freshman campaign at Ohio State. His sophomore season didn't go much more swimmingly either, as he lost his starting spot at middle linebacker just three games into the season.

Meanwhile in Georgia, McMillan was already making a name for himself, being named the Region 3-AAA defensive player of the year as a junior in 2012. Heading into 2013, McMillan could have already had his pick of where he'd be spending his college career, and his recruitment only ramped up when he repeated as his region's top defensive player as a senior.

McMillan's stellar 2013 campaign coincided with the best of Grant's college career, as the then-junior tallied 52 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 12 games. But even then, injuries and inconsistencies prevented the 6'3", 240-pounder from living up to the hype that came with him to Columbus in 2011, as even he's admitted that his career has yet to meet its lofty expectations.

"Average. Very average," Grant said when asked to describe his college career. "I didn't have the confidence that I needed coming in. I was thinking too much."

That, however, no longer appears to be the case. As Buckeyes co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell explained, Grant has acted every bit the senior he is through the first week of his final fall camp, which has paid dividends for him on the football field.

"His confidence level has really gone up. That's probably the biggest thing," Fickell said. "Things haven't quite gone his way since the day he walked in here. I'll tell you what, he's a different kid—no, I shouldn't say kid. He's a different man."

Nipping at Grant's heels, however, is a kid, even if McMillan hasn't quite looked like one since arriving on campus as an early enrollee in January.

Raekwon McMillan has been impressive since arriving at Ohio State in the winter.
Raekwon McMillan has been impressive since arriving at Ohio State in the winter.247Sports.com

When the Buckeyes split into two teams for the annual spring game in April, there was McMillan—all of 18-years-old—alongside presumed starting linebackers Joshua Perry and Darron Lee on the Gray squad. And when Ohio State took the field for the first day of fall camp, McMillan didn't participate in practice with his fellow freshmen in the morning, as he was invited to take part in the veterans' afternoon session by his head coach.

"They act like grown men," Meyer said of McMillan and freshman wide receiver Johnnie Dixon. "So we let them practice with the grown men today."

Unsurprisingly, it didn't take long for McMillan to lose the black stripe on his practice helmet either, signaling that he had "officially" become a member of the Buckeyes' roster.

But as the competition between Grant and McMillan has heated up, the two roommates have only grown closer. Older and wiser than he was three years ago, Grant understandably sees himself in his understudy and wants to provide a presence that he never felt when he was a highly touted freshman.

"That's like my little brother. I try to teach him the ropes," Grant said of McMillan. "It's something that I didn't have my freshman year. I kind of had it, but this is a little more welcoming."

And while McMillan has admitted that Grant's guidance has helped him, he's also not shy about stating that starting is one of his goals for his freshman season. Whether he'll make an early impact or suffer the same early struggles that Grant did remains to be seen, but he's well aware of the opportunity that's at hand as his freshman season approaches.

"I'm used to coming in my freshman year with a lot of expectations," McMillan said, drawing back on his high school days. "Either you break under pressure with it, or you make diamonds with it. I'm just trying to do everything I can to make progress."

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All recruiting information comes courtesy of 247Sports.com.


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