RICHMOND — They have known each other since kindergarten. They went through grade school together, and their families attend the same church.
They are of similar size and build. They play alongside each other on the football field, and their uniforms are one number apart. They even had surgery on the same day for the same injury.
Now, University of Richmond linebackers Darius McMillan and Derek Mayo aim to hoist a trophy together.
"It's not about individual accolades," Mayo said. "It's about a national championship, a CAA championship."
If the Spiders are to return to the FCS playoffs, the Hampton natives and childhood friends must contribute, on and off the field.
Richmond slogged through a 6-5 season last year, when injuries at quarterback hamstrung the offense and, by extension, overworked a very good defense.
Now, with Southern California transfer quarterback Aaron Corp healthy again, the offense should be much improved. However, the defense will miss a trio of playmakers in lineman Martin Parker, linebacker Eric McBride and cornerback Justin Rogers.
"I read where someone called us a 'no-name defense,'|" McMillan said. "I kind of like that because it means that no one person is the focus, and everybody has to make plays. This year, we have a lot of guys striving and thirsting to make plays. We have the potential to be a better defense than last year."
McMillan and Mayo figure to be in the thick of the action. The redshirt juniors are inside linebackers when the Spiders play a four-linebacker scheme, while McMillan plays the middle and Mayo outside when they employ a three-linebacker lineup.
McMillan is 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, Mayo 5-10 and 225 pounds. Both make up for their lack of size by playing physically — "downhill," in Mayo's words, taking on blockers and running through people rather than around them.
"Sometimes, it's hard to tell us apart on the field," Mayo said.
It's no coincidence that both are college football players. Mayo is the younger brother of New England Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo and NFL free-agent signee Deron Mayo, who concluded his college career last fall at Old Dominion.
McMillan's older brother, Lashae, played cornerback at VMI and mentored him in the fine art of playing bigger than your measurables.
"We thought years ago that they'd be great players," UR second-year head coach Latrell Scott said. "They're hard-working guys. They're two 5-11, 220-pound linebackers that are almost twins, and they spend every minute of their lives together."
Not quite, but close. Both are polite and engaging to a fault. Mayo is the more gregarious of the two, while McMillan is by nature more reserved.
They grew up a couple of streets away from each other in the Buckroe area of Hampton. The only time they diverged was when McMillan transferred from Kecoughtan to Phoebus for his last two years of high school, taking advantage of an academic program that permitted the move.
Mayo, meanwhile, remained at Kecoughtan and still needles McMillan about bailing out. They were roommates as freshmen at UR, but live apart now, thought they still spend quite a bit of time together.
They compete at everything. Mayo is the better golfer, McMillan the better bowler. When they play "Call of Duty" or "NCAA Football" video games, Mayo is better on PlayStation, McMillan better on Xbox — something about the game controls being better suited to one over the other.
Scott recruited both Mayo and McMillan as a Richmond assistant before he went to Tennessee, and the ties between him and the respective families are almost spooky.
Lashae McMillan played at VMI when Scott was an assistant. Mayo's older brother, Jerod, was just concluding his college career at Tennessee when Scott arrived.
Scott actually inherited both of them, since they were in former UR coach Mike London's first recruiting class.
Scott called McMillan a stereotypical inside linebacker, very comfortable playing in the middle of the box.
"Very physical, very tough," he said.
As for Mayo, Scott said, "Derek is an outside linebacker. He can blitz off the edge, he has good speed, he runs very well."
Similarities aside, the two have had different career paths at Richmond. McMillan is the Spiders' top returning tackler with 89 total stops, while Mayo saw limited duty each of his first two seasons.
"My biggest thing was that I was immature my first couple of years," Mayo said. "I wanted to be part of the pack, rather than be a leader. I think I've matured. I speak more hope now rather than negativity."
Mayo's maturity, as well as a heavy dose of summer workouts with brothers Jerod and Deron, result in him being better equipped to produce this season.
He came to camp at 223 pounds and in the best shape of his life. Last summer, he showed up at a chunky 238 pounds, which he couldn't carry comfortably and which sapped his legs.
"Halfway through camp last year, my legs were gone," he said. "This year, I feel great."
McMillan, too, said that he's a more complete player, in part a result of sitting out spring practice. He underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder last December and spent the winter and spring recovering and rehabilitating.
"That allowed me to get a better concept of the mental side of defense," he said. "Last year, I was more of a reactionary player and relied on my instincts. Sitting out gave me more opportunity to watch and study film. Now, I'm able to understand not just my role, but every player on defense and where everything fits. It also helped me to be able to teach the younger guys."
Mayo sat out spring practice, as well, after surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Both surgeries were performed the same day last December. In fact, one was wheeled out of the OR while the other was being prepped for surgery.
The shoulder injuries and subsequent surgeries are the product of their playing style — undersized guys who relish and often initiate contact in traffic. But it's that willingness to do what's necessary that demonstrates what will get the Spiders back to the top of the Colonial Athletic Association.
"Our effort will carry us further than talent," McMillan said. "We definitely have the potential to be one of the top teams in the CAA."Copyright © 2015, CT Now