ORONO — Jerron McMillian has an infectious energy and enthusiam.
Around campus, he’s usually flashing a broad smile that can quickly brighten the day of his teammates, friends and coaches.
Once he buckles up the helmet and pulls on his No. 1 jersey, it is McMillian’s high-intensity, hard-hitting style that influences his University of Maine football teammates.
“He plays with a high level of energy and enthusiasm,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove. “He plays pretty fearlessly.”
The senior safety has been among the catalysts for ninth-ranked UMaine, which continues its quest for a Colonial Athletic Association championship Saturday with a 3:30 p.m. game at No. 18 Richmond.
McMillian goes into the contest ranked second on the team with 46 tackles, including 5.5 for a loss of yardage. He also has an interception for the Black Bears (5-1, 3-0 CAA).
“I think he’s an instinctive football player, but he takes coaching very well,” Cosgrove said. “He really prepares himself every week to play well. You very rarely see him out of position.”
The 5-foot-11, 215-pounder from Hillside, N.J., who is a third-year starter for the Black Bears, is attracting the attention of National Football League scouts.
“He’s a real physical presence,” said UMaine defensive coordinator Joe Rossi. “He’s a good tackler, a good blitzer, and he’s extremely competitive. He hates to lose.”
McMillian isn’t the kind of player who blends into the Bears’ defensive scheme. He races around the field, applies crunching hits and has a knack for making momentum-building plays.
“I like to bring the energy so everybody feeds off the same energy, then everybody will be flying around,” McMillian said.
“It’s part of my character,” he added. “The more energy we play with, the more we can get done as a team.”
He pointed to the importance of trust and communication among the players as keys in UMaine’s early success.
McMillian was an All-CAA second-team pick last season after making 58 tackles with two interceptions. He is well ahead of that pace in 2011.
He patrols the secondary with classmate Trevor Coston and has established himself with his ability supporting the run defense. McMillian has improved his tackling during his time in Orono.
Rossi explained McMillian has learned to keep his feet moving when coming up on a ballcarrier.
“Now, he’s able to attack and go through people. He’s probably our best tackler in terms of being sure-handed,” Rossi said.
Another aspect of McMillian’s presence is his flowing hair, which reaches down past the middle of his back. He stopped cutting it as a sophomore in high school after admiring his older brother Darian’s dreadlocks.
Perhaps McMillian’s intensity and exuberance on the field stem from his less rigorous football beginnings.
“I never played Pop Warner football, but we had flag football,” McMillian said. “I didn’t play tackle football until high school.”
McMillian’s choice to attend UMaine was an easy one, he said, because it was the only school to offer him a football scholarship.
He redshirted as a true freshman in 2007, but knew right away UMaine would prove a good fit.
“I enjoyed my time here. I was chillin’,” said McMillian, who found he had to alter some habits and tone down his energy at times.
“Things I was able to do at home, I couldn’t do up here,” he said.
He stumbled last December when he was arrested after a scuffle outside Curva Ultra Lounge in Orono. McMillian eventually pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was fined $250.
“It really got my attention,” he said simply.
McMillian, who credits his mother Rosemary and his family for providing strong support, conceded he sometimes lacked a mentor outside the home as a youngster.
“I don’t think I had anybody to really guide me,” he said. “I had to follow a path and create my own way to make it.”
McMillian hopes to turn that dynamic around. He is majoring in child development and family relations and plans to work with young people.
“I want to give back and really help other kids try to succeed,” he said.
In the meantime, McMillian is focused on helping UMaine have a memorable season.