Featuring torn sleeves on his red No. 17 jersey, Mason McMillen was having a blast in crisp, 45-degree weather Wednesday at practice.
The junior linebacker was bouncing all over the place, calling out plays and formation strengths as the scout team ran through Olmsted Falls’ plays and even jumping on teammates in excitement when success was achieved.
McMillen has heard a lifetime of red-head jokes despite not reaching legal adult status, but he’s more than willing to be the fiery, ball-of-energy leader every good defense seems to have. Magnetic, personable and extremely popular among his teammates, McMillen lives to play the game.
The 6-foot, 192-pounder keeps getting better and better, too, as the second-seeded Grizzlies (11-0) head into a Division II, Region 6 semifinal Friday against the No. 4 Bulldogs (10-1) at Brunswick Auto Mart Stadium.
“He’s crazier than anyone else on the team, that’s for sure,” smiling best friend and safety Brock Snowball said. “He’s all over the place making sure everyone is hyped up. That’s why he’s a leader.”
McMillen is the middle linebacker in an undersized, fast and aggressive 3-3-5 scheme. He started and rotated between inside and out as a sophomore, though that didn’t matter to him as long as he was on the field.
Admittedly being physically overmatched at times — his upper body in particular is now noticeably thicker — McMillen posted 53 tackles last season, including a season-high 12 (3½ for loss) in a regionally televised game against Twinsburg.
That only made him hungrier to succeed.
So, like seemingly everyone else in the Grizzlies program, McMillen made significant strides athletically in the weight room and embraced the art of film study. Embracing perfection also has made McMillen a coach’s dream, as he’s constantly asking linebackers coach Luke Colopy questions about what he needs to do.
McMillen’s development is a big reason why Wadsworth has taken big strides defensively after hard-to-watch 2015 and ’16 seasons.
“It was a really good experience because I had never faced anything like that,” said McMillen, who also has 42 career wins for the highly successful wrestling team. “I was used to doing what I wanted, but when I started as a sophomore, there was a lot on my shoulders. It taught me a lot, especially that I needed to get in the weight room.”
While most of Medina County’s top linebackers are on the shorter end of the spectrum — Cloverleaf’s Cory Stallings, Highland’s Ethan Gerding and Black River’s Alex Vormelker come to mind — McMillen is a lean athlete built more like a safety. His intelligence and motor allow him to consistently take great pursuit angles, and his agility often jukes down-blocking linemen out of their shoes as he bee-lines to the ball.
No one can pinpoint why, but the light bulb fully illuminated midway through the season and McMillen turned into a playmaking monster. Over the last five games, he has 57 tackles, including 7½ for loss and 3½ sacks, to give him a team-leading 93 for the season.
Last week against Sylvania Northview, McMillen had the best game of his career with 14 tackles (3½ for loss, sack, pass breakup) and was a major factor why physical Wildcats tailback Dane Hullibarger had only six carries for 8 yards in the second half of a 61-42 Wadsworth victory.
“My coach (Colopy), he’s helped me out a lot in progression. He’s always watching film and showing me new stuff to do,” McMillen said. “My thumb was banged up at the beginning of the year — it feels a lot better now — and I think I got a lot more comfortable in the defensive system.”
McMillen will undoubtedly be a key a player against Olmsted Falls, which runs the Navy-inspired flexbone triple-option. The flexbone is known for big interior linemen who get to the second level quickly, not to mention myriad ways to stretch defenses from sideline to sideline with ball fakes.
The Bulldogs will throw 250- to 290-pounders at McMillen all night, but he and the rest of the Grizzlies are confident they’ll be up to the task.
And every time they make a play, McMillen will be the first to celebrate.
“He loves football,” defensive coordinator Jason Knapp said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been around a player who loves football more than he does. It’s awesome.”
Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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