ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Adrian Snow kept hearing stories about the talented incoming freshman who was set to join his program at West Forsyth High School in Clemmons, N.C. He would hear tales about how the 5-foot-10 defensive back could zip to the ball in a blink. How he would mirror a receiver’s every step as if he had heard the play in the huddle.
So when Snow brought his skill-position players to a seven-on-seven passing tournament in the summer of 2015, he decided to test Ja’Quan McMillian right away.
“I go to the opposing coach and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a freshman corner here who we think could be really good. Can you check his oil for me?’” Snow recalled in a telephone conversation this week. “The coach said, ‘Yeah, we’ll throw it at him.’ So they did. Sure enough, Ja’Quan picked off the first throw.”
Snow has known for nearly a decade what NFL teams are quickly learning this season: McMillian, the Denver Broncos’ second-year defensive back, will always be around the ball.
On the first play of Denver’s 24-22 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Monday night, McMillian shed a block by wide receiver Trent Sherfield and collided near the line of scrimmage with running back James Cook, who had caught a swing pass from Bills quarterback Josh Allen. McMillian ripped the ball from Cook’s arms and pounced on the fumble, corralling it just before it rolled out of bounds. The tone-setting play came one game after McMillian picked up his first career interception — a diving theft of a pass from Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes that was intended for star tight end Travis Kelce.
THAT’S HOW YOU START #MNF!
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) November 14, 2023
The impact McMillian has had on the Broncos during their three-game winning streak — one that extends well beyond the two aforementioned splash plays — has been all the more impressive given that he is doing it from the nickel spot, a position he never played outside of practice before this season. As the Broncos (4-5) head into a prime-time matchup with the Vikings (6-4) on Sunday, sturdy production from McMillian has become a constant for Denver’s improving defense.
“He’s looked really comfortable, like a veteran who has been playing there for a couple years,” safety Kareem Jackson said of McMillian, who joined the Broncos as an undrafted rookie in 2022. “Everybody in our DB room, the defensive coaches, knew what type of player he was. He had a great training camp. So seeing him play the way he is now, it’s not a coincidence.”
That McMillian has played a prominent role in the Broncos’ recent turnover flurry comes as no surprise to those who have followed his development. The interception he had during that passing tournament was a preview of what was to come for McMillian during a freshman season at West Forsyth in which he intercepted seven passes. He went on to become the school’s all-time interception leader, picking off 22 passes in his four years. He then had 12 interceptions during his three seasons at East Carolina, and his 16 pass breakups as a junior in 2021 are a single-season school record.
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When Blake Harrell saw McMillian rip the ball away from Cook on “Monday Night Football,” his mind darted back to a similar scene.
“We played at Navy two years ago, and he won the game for us,” said Harrell, who has been the defensive coordinator at East Carolina since 2020. “The last drive of the game, it’s a big third down, and they throw a ball across the middle. Ja’Quan punches it out, causes a fumble, and we end up getting the ball back and (kicking a field goal) to win the game. It’s no surprise he’s doing stuff like that in the NFL. I could name four or five games where he did stuff like that for us over the years, same kind of scenarios.”
What Snow began to count on during McMillian’s high school career is that the 5-foot-10, 183-pound cornerback — he was probably closer to 150 pounds in high school — would show up most prominently in the biggest moments. He specifically remembers a game from McMillian’s freshman year in 2015. West Forsyth was playing on the road against its crosstown rival, East Forsyth, which had an all-state senior receiver named Nique Martin whom McMillian was tasked with covering.
“The place is going crazy and there are people everywhere,” Snow said. “He jumps an out route, picks it off and returns it for a touchdown. The moment was never too big for him. Never. When he got to the Broncos, I knew all he needed was a shot. If he had a shot, it wasn’t going to be too big for him.”
McMillian went undrafted despite his significant production at East Carolina, and the Broncos jumped at the chance to sign him as an undrafted free agent. Denver secondary coach Christian Parker pored over McMillian’s tape and saw a player whose instincts were easy to identify.
“The biggest predictor for getting the ball in the future is what you’ve done in the past,” Parker said. “He just has these natural instincts and this feel. Things make sense to him. When he knows what his job is and where the people are around him, then he can focus on where the ball is and be disruptive on arrival and handle different jobs in his head.”
McMillian spent nearly all of the 2022 season on Denver’s practice squad, but he made his NFL debut in Week 18 at outside corner. During a home victory against the Los Angeles Chargers, he had seven tackles and appeared to pick off Justin Herbert in the fourth quarter, a play that ended with McMillian returning the interception for a would-be touchdown. The play was ruled incomplete, though, much to the dismay of those on the Denver sideline.
“Now that I have an interception (off Mahomes), I can finally let it go, but I was upset about it for a while,” McMillian said with a laugh as he recounted the pick that wasn’t. “I believe my hand was under the ball, clear as day, but I’m over it now.”
Despite his history of ball-hawking production, which was on full display during training camp, McMillian did not have a clear role to begin this season for the Broncos. He was inactive in Week 1 and then played only on special teams the next two weeks. When the Broncos lost veteran nickelback K’Waun Williams in training camp, the Broncos chose Essang Bassey, a fourth-year player who had spent most of his career in Denver, as his replacement.
There was no doubting McMillian’s play-making ability. As a kid growing up in North Carolina, he would play driveway basketball games against his brother, Jayshawn, who is four years older. McMillian was at a significant size disadvantage in those battles, so he focused on figuring out ways to poke the ball away. As his football career developed, he spent hours throwing and catching tennis balls, sharpening his hand-eye coordination.
“He was always around the ball, punching it out, making plays,” Harrell said. “Some guys just have that, and he’s one of those guys.”
But the switch to nickel — McMillian was exclusively a boundary corner in college — forced a change in McMillian that was less natural. The nickel spot in Denver’s defense is a central hub of communication. The player in that role has to alert everyone on the defense as to how motion on a given play shifts individual responsibilities. He has to make sure everyone is fitting the right gaps in the run game. In short, he has to be constantly talking.
“I’m not really a vocal guy, and as a nickel, you have to communicate,” he said. “The defense is set off you, so you’re getting everybody in place and telling them what tools we might be working (with) according to the play. You’ve got to adjust the motions, telling them you’re going to bump with the run. You’re more in the run fit now, so you have to know when you’re fitting that. The route tree is bigger in there, and you’ve got some changes in there. But it wasn’t really the cover part. It was the vocal part and communicating to everywhere.”
After a 70-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 3, the Broncos began instituting a series of personnel changes. Encouraged by McMillian’s progress as a communicator in practice, they moved the second-year player into the starting nickel role, releasing Bassey. It was one of several switches that helped Denver, the NFL’s leader in takeaways since Week 4, rebound from a historically rough start. McMillian has played better each week, growing more comfortable in his new position. During the Broncos’ three-game winning streak, McMillian has been targeted 11 times and allowed only five receptions for 61 yards, plus the interception of Mahomes. Quarterbacks targeting him have a 25.2 passer rating in that span, according to Pro Football Focus.
“You can tell he just has a great awareness for the game,” Parker said. “A lot of times, those guys end up having success moving inside. It’s like a peninsula versus being truly on an island. There’s no sideline, but he can be in the run, be in the pass; play zone, play man. We saw those traits. We cross-trained him when he got here at nickel and at corner, but this is really the first time he’s been able to focus on one, which has helped him.”
Snow, who remains close with McMillian and has already come to Denver to watch him play, paused this week when trying to express what it felt like to see McMillian rip the ball away on the first play of a nationally televised game. The veteran coach had stewed every time a college recruiter would voice concerns about his size. Just watch him play, Snow would tell them. You’ll always find him at the ball.
When McMillian ripped the ball away, Snow felt tears welling in his eyes.
“He was a playmaker the first day we watched him, and he’s still a playmaker,” Snow said. “That’s not going to change.”
(Top photo: Adrian Kraus / Associated Press)
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