ORONO — Jerron McMillian is coming full circle this weekend.

Three years ago, McMillian made his first start at safety as a redshirt freshman for the University of Maine football team. It was a new experience and a new position at a new level of football for McMillian, now a redshirt senior. And it was against James Madison, Maine’s opponent on Saturday, at Harold Alfond Stadium.

“They were the No. 1 team at that time,” McMillian said. “I didn’t do too bad, but I was a little nervous at first. As the game went on, I started to feel a little more confident. As time went on, I really had to get a feel of the physical type of shape I needed to get in, and the physical and mental preparation, and how I’m supposed to get my body ready, and the mind set that goes into (playing safety). It’s a learning process.”

McMillian was a quarterback and a safety at Hillside (N.J.) High School, but when he came to Maine he was assigned solely to the defensive backfield, where he could be utilized for his size (5-foot-11, 215 pounds), speed, football knowledge and familiarity with the tactics of opposing quarterbacks.

“As a quarterback, you know about certain coverages, where there are certain weaknesses in the coverage, what attack you want to use in those coverages, so that helped me adjust,” McMillian said.

There was also another benefit to playing at safety over playing at quarterback.

“I could hit people instead of getting hit,” McMillian said, laughing.

What makes McMillian effective at safety is that while he isn’t a focal point on the field, he brings consistency to the defensive unit as a whole. This season, McMillian leads Maine (3-1, 1-0 Colonial Athletic Association) with 33 tackles — 20 solo, 13 assisted — in four games.

“Jerron doesn’t seem flashy, but he is flashy, and that’s his personality,” Maine coach Jack Cosgrove said. “But, probably, the most impressive part about his personality is Jerron’s consistency, how he plays his game. He’s come a long way with that. Over the years, there have been guys who have been easy to manage, guys who have been hard to manage, guys who may have come further away from where they are, and Jerron kind of represents one of those hard-to-manage guys initially, simply because he was coming from an entirely different environment. There was a learning curve for Jerron.”

To get to the point of being key cog in Maine’s defense, McMillian had to learn not only to understand Maine’s football operations but also to embrace it as part of his knowledge of football. Back in the beginning, McMillian’s transition to college football came with some resistance.

McMillian had to learn not just how to practice but how to execute the little things — being on time for meetings, applying himself to his schoolwork.

“It came to a point where he bought into the whole thing,” said Steve Vashel, Maine’s defensive backs coach. “It was something he questioned at first. The trick is getting a young player to trust it. You can’t trust the messenger, but you can trust the message. Once a player trusts the whole process, that’s one of the most important elements of the team. Once Jerron realized what he can do, and that he wasn’t doing it, he really started to.”

Instead of looking at practice — and at the process — as part of a grind, Vashel said McMillian relishes each chance he gets to be around football, whether it’s training, watching video or working in practice.

“He has a very high level of football intelligence, of athletic intelligence,” Vashel said. “He can see things around him. He’s got a good sense of space. But Jerron realized what he had to do to do things every time, and that was his approach and sense of preparation.”

Since his first start at safety three years ago at James Madison, more than 20 NFL scouts have come to Orono to watch McMillian play and practice, a point that’s not lost upon McMillian but also not emphasized. There’s a bigger task at hand each week with the Black Bears.

“I just want to play college football and accomplish what I want to do before anything else,” McMillian said. “This team has so much determination and focus on what we’ve got to do week by week.”

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