Oct. 24, 2013
Leading the Youth
Senior Zachary McMillian Enjoying Every Minute of Football
Written by: Roman Petrowski
One of the most difficult things about college athletics is replacing your senior players year in and year out. Each season different young men graduate and move on, and it’s up for a younger man to step in and fill that role.
For the University of Houston defensive secondary, that task was made tougher when cornerback D.J. Hayden became a first-round draft pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. However Zachary McMillian, the next in line to replace Hayden, is no stranger to the spotlight.
“It’s not easy to replace him,” McMillian said of Hayden. “He was a great football player. He was probably one of the best defensive backs I’ve ever seen play in person. Everything he did was just great.”
McMillian has seen tutelage from some of the greatest players in Houston Cougar history. Not only did he spend the last two seasons playing alongside Hayden, but McMillian grew up with Cougar great Audray McMillian as a father.
Though McMillian has had greats as teachers and role models, perhaps the most important lesson he has learned is that he still has to go out and be his own player.
“You have to just be yourself and realize you’re not them,” McMillian said. “I just go out and work hard every day like they did and take good habits and try to make them my own.”
Becoming his own player seems to come natural for McMillian. In his three and a half seasons in Cougar Red and White, he has seen action in 41 games and accumulated eight interceptions, but it is what McMillian means to his defensive teammates that means the most.
As one of just two seniors starting on the Houston defense, McMillian has adopted the task of being a leader for this young squad.
“The younger guys on defense call me Coach,” McMillian said. “That’s my nickname. I just try and keep everybody in line and make sure that if there is a problem it stays at a minimum.”
Despite the youth on the defensive side of the ball, it hasn’t taken long for this young squad to gel as a team. McMillian is proud of the way the team has come together and the bond they share.
“It’s awesome because I saw a lot of these players that are playing right now when they first came in on recruiting trips,” McMillian said. “It’s awesome to see how they were a bright-eyed freshmen and now we’re out there playing together. We are very close. We all know what we expect out of each other.”
Not only does McMillian have to lead a crop of young, fresh faces on the field, there’s also a new face on the sidelines calling the plays. In three of his four seasons McMillian has worked with a different coach at defensive coordinator.
However, the addition of David Gibbs to the Houston coaching staff is an exciting one for McMillian. For the first time in his collegiate career he’s playing for a coordinator who knows what it’s like to play and coach his position.
“It has been a good and smooth transition, but it’s always sort of difficult,” McMillian said. “I have had three different defensive coordinators here and he has been the smoothest transition. He is a defensive backs coach, so he tries to make it easy for defensive backs because he knows we play one of the hardest jobs on the football field.”
Despite the fresh faces all around him, McMillian is well aware that this is his senior season. As head coach Tony Levine continuously reminds him, every Tuesday that McMillian is at practice, he only has a certain number of Tuesday’s left before his time is done.
“(Head) Coach (Tony) Levine talked about it with me last Sunday,” McMillian said. “I just have seven more Tuesdays to practice as a University of Houston Cougar and you want to try and work as hard as you possibly can in order for those Tuesdays to keep going in football.”
Though he has dreams of continuing his career, McMillian isn’t going to take anything for granted while he is at the University of Houston. He understands his time is precious here and he wants to enjoy every minute of it.
“Your senior year is different from all the other years,” McMillian said. “This could be your last time ever playing the game of football and so you know and say you’re going to seize every opportunity that’s given to you.”
As for McMillian’s dreams of playing on Sunday, they became a little bit more of a reality when his buddy Hayden became a first-round draft pick. However, McMillian knows that all he can do is work hard and take whatever comes to him.
“Definitely the fact that I played with and saw him and hung out with him every day makes this tangible,” McMillian said. “It’s like wow that’s actually possible, but whatever is in God’s plan for me I don’t have any control over. All I can do is work as hard as I possibly can and just give it my all. If that’s in his plan then it will happen for me.”