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AC In The AM: Healthy McMillan's Impact On Defense
May 25, 2018 09:55 AM | Andy Cohen
They lost him even before many of us knew what they had. But now you can easily make a case that the season-ending knee injury sustained by rookie linebacker Raekwon McMillan on the first punt of the first preseason game was a setback that, in many ways, hovered over this defense the entire 2017 season.

There is a reason McMillan had earned a starting job so early in his training camp, just as there was a reason he was selected in the second round. There was no easing him into the lineup. This defense needed a run-stuffer, needed another leader and needed a young, productive linebacker. McMillan perfectly fit the job description.

And then, so painfully soon, it was over. Can you imagine a more abrupt ending to a season filled with that much promise? I mean, he didn't get to play a single down of defense and his rookie season was over. All those plans filed away for another season. All his dreams of doing on this level what he did as a three-year starter at Ohio State had to be put on hold.

No, this didn't carry with it the magnitude of losing starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill for the season. That's a different category. But McMillan was, in many respects, expected to be the quarterback of the defense and for a rookie to get that type of opportunity you just knew he had a chance to be special.

Now he is back. His rehab is complete. His knee is sound. He is ready to reclaim his spot in the starting lineup, knowing that his immediate impact is needed as much this season as it was last. He is listed as a second-year player, but how can you not look at him as a rookie? Rarely does a journey end before it begins, but that was the fate McMillan was forced to accept.

"It was crazy," he said of the injury. "I'd never been hurt before in a game. I felt a little nudge and got up and tried to run, but I knew something was wrong."

Flash forward to Thursday afternoon at the Dolphins training facility as McMillan met with the media for the first time since his injury. He wiped some sweat from his forehead, gave us a big time smile and proclaimed: "It feels good to be back, standing in front of you all."

The operative word was "standing." For far too long, McMillan couldn't even do that without the assistance of crutches. There were days filled with pain and doubt. He didn't know what tomorrow would bring, but he was fortunate that he did not have to endure this experience alone.

How ironic that Ryan Tannehill would have his surgery the same day at McMillan. How coincidental that they would start rehabbing on the same day as well. Two such prominent players shelved for the season, urging each other on, instilling confidence and a belief in one another.

Before too long, they were competing. Who would get off those dastardly crutches first? Who could swim farther? Who would be able to run first?

"He kept me positive," McMillan said of Tannehill. "It was really hard at first, but I didn't want to let last year become a waste. I wanted to learn as much as I could."

So he studied the defense, he asked questions and he tried to absorb things almost as if he would be suiting up that Sunday afternoon. That kept him mentally sharp. The physical part took longer. It wasn't until December and January when he started playing basketball and golf and started pushing himself harder and harder.

"Everything was about taking baby steps," he said. "First one step, then two steps and eventually I got to full speed. That's when I knew I was back."

He's proving it now every day on the practice field. McMillan is home again at middle linebacker, calling signals, making plays, doing it all without any limitations. Granted, we're only through three days of OTAs and the hitting won't start until the summer. But all the signs are encouraging.

"We had high hopes for him last season," said defensive coordinator Matt Burke. "Nothing he has done since then has discouraged that. He's been really in-tune, been really sharp. He's worked his (butt) off to get better."

And now he gets to play alongside his former Ohio State teammate Jerome Baker, an outside linebacker who was taken by the Dolphins in the third round. McMillan recruited Baker for the Buckeyes. They are close friends. They shared some big games together in college and now are together once again, trying to see if they can literally take their skills to another level.

"Great to have him here," McMillan said.

Whether that Ohio State connection becomes a compelling storyline to this season is something we'll have to wait to find out. For now, though, McMillan's story is compelling by itself. Can he pick up where he left off last summer? How will he embrace the leadership role that comes with being a middle linebacker? How much better can he make this defense?

The answers will come soon enough. Each OTA practice offers more positive signs. For now, though, McMillan is just glad to be out there again, glad to be feeling like his old self.

"I've got to earn everything I get here," he says. "I felt like I could have done big things last year. But now it has to wait for this season."

This season. Less than four months away. You get the feeling it can't come soon enough for Raekwon McMillan.
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