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Raekwon McMillan ready to reclaim role as Dolphins middle linebacker

NFL: Miami Dolphins-OTA Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest story around the Miami Dolphins this offseason and into training camp is the return of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has missed the team’s last 19 games rehabbing from an ACL injury. However, he is not the only starter returning this season after the team was decimated by injury in 2017; last year’s second-round draft pick and starting middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan also missed the year due to an ACL tear.

McMillan joined the Dolphins after playing at Ohio State, and he claimed the starting middle linebacker position during the offseason training program and into training camp. On the first play of the preseason however, McMillan’s ACL tore on kickoff coverage and his year was over. “When I was on the ground, I was sitting there like, ‘Wow,’” McMillan said last week of being injured on his first play. “I knew something was up as soon as it happened because I’ve never been hurt before and when I jumped up to try to run again – if you go back and look at it – when I first fell, I jumped right back up and tried to run but it just didn’t feel right. I sat back down and I knew something was up. I was like, ‘Man, this is crazy. This is the first time I’m touching the field, period, and I’m hurt.’ Yes, it was crazy.”

“We got our surgery on the same exact day,” a laughing McMillan said of going through rehab with Tannehill. “We got back here on the day and we started rehab the same exact day. From Day 1, it was always a competition. Who could walk without their crutches first? Who could run full-speed under water first? It was just little stuff. Who can get a bigger quad muscle? It was just really stupid stuff like that to keep competing with each other. Also, Isaiah Ford too was in that competition with us, even though he had a smaller injury. We all kept the light on each other.”

Ford, a 2017 seventh-round pick for Miami at wide receiver, tore his meniscus and missed his rookie season as well.

“Man, it feels good to be standing up again in front of you all,” McMillan said when asked about the status of his knee. “It feels good to be back. My knee feels good. I’m out there doing everything at practice and (have) no limitations, so I’m out there flying around.”

He continued, explaining through laughter, “I’ve got like one and a half, I guess. Whatever you want to call it. So yes, this is my rookie and a half (year).”

McMillan appeared set to be the top contributing rookie for Miami last year, only to have it taken away before he even got on the field with the defense. “It was hard at first; but then I kind of sucked it up and told myself that I could either let this year be a waste or prepare myself for next year, because I know next year there is going to be a role to start. I can’t have any setbacks.”

Having Tannehill beside him going through the same rehab was uplifting for McMillan as well. “He always kept me up,” McMillan said of Tannehill. “Some days I wasn’t feeling too good and I just couldn’t do what I wanted to do. He always kept me positive and kept my mind right, because he had went through it last year.”

Returning to the game, McMillan turned to Tannehill and running back Frank Gore, a free-agent addition to the Dolphins this year who dealt with two ACL tears in college, for advice. “That’s the worst thing you can do is think about it,” McMillan said of thinking about his knee when he is playing. “I kind of got some advice from Frank Gore and (Ryan) Tannehill, that went through it a little bit last year. (They said) just when you get out there and you’re going, that needs to be the last thing on your mind.”

Tannehill was often seen around the team throughout his rehabilitation and was reported to be in all of the team meetings and quarterback room throughout the season. McMillan was similarly engaged with the team. “I got to watch Chase Allen grow into the player that he is right now,” McMillan said of what he learned while remaining around the club. “Chase did a great job coming in and filling in. Just talking with him, he was kind of like my boy when we were coming in through camp and learning together. During the season, just watching him out there doing it while I’m still going to all of the meetings and talking, it just helped my mental game. Now that I’m back out there, I’m still with the guys.”

McMillan is ready to return to his role with the team, flatly stating, “I’m the Mike. I’m the middle linebacker, the guy in the middle, the quarterback of the defense. I’m trying to become a leader out there. There’s nothing given to me, so I’m going to try to work my way into that leadership spot.”

Returning to the competition he had with Tannehill over the year, McMillan explained laughingly, “I won. I mean, I don’t know. Tannehill progressed a little bit faster than me because he just knew what the deal was with his knee. He wasn’t scared of the aches and pains that come with it. He moved along and helped me move along, as well.”

Of the aches and pains he mentioned, McMillan added, “Was I scared of them? Yes, but I got surgery for a reason. The surgery was so that I wouldn’t have the aches and pains anymore. It went away eventually.”

The Dolphins will need McMillan to show he can man the middle of a defense that has been retooled this year. They will be counting on his knee to remain healthy and for McMillan to return to the form that had the club ready to trust a rookie with leading the defense. It sounds like McMillan is ready to fill that role.