During the second quarter of Indiana’s game against Wisconsin, Donaven McCulley needed encouragement.
The wide receiver had one catch at that point, when he saw two end-zone targets in one series. The first-down throw from Brendan Sorsby sailed way out of bounds. But on third down, McCulley dropped the ball. Sorsby’s pass was a touch high, to keep it away from defenders, but deflected off the junior’s hands for an incompletion. IU had to settle for a field goal.
McCulley was unhappy with himself when he got back to the sideline. Redshirt senior Noah Pierre noticed it, and reassured him. Not long after that, near the end of that second quarter, McCulley made one of the biggest highlight plays of Indiana’s season, a one-handed touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone.
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“I went up to him and I told him, ‘Bro, you a dawg. It’s going to come back, the opportunity’s going to come back and you’re going to make the most of it.’ And then a few plays later, he’s catching a one-hand touchdown,” Pierre said. “After he did that, I’m like, ‘I told you! I told you!'”
McCulley has turned into one of the bright spots of this IU football season. He finished that Wisconsin game with five catches for 67 yards with the touchdown. Cam Camper was already out, and the Hoosiers needed other receivers to step up.
And then, with Omar Cooper Jr. also out, McCulley topped that performance last week at Illinois. He hauled in 11 receptions for 137 yards and two touchdowns. He looked like a guy who’d been the No. 1 receiver all season — and certainly not like a player who was playing quarterback at this time just two years ago.
McCulley switched positions in spring camp 2022, and it took a while for him to really settle in at wide receiver. He spent a lot of that first season learning the basics of the position, and he recorded a modest output: 16 receptions, 169 yards, and one touchdown.
But establishing that baseline at receiver was huge for McCulley going into last offseason, and he made a lot of progress mentally during spring ball. He developed more confidence, but he also began to understand more intricacies of playing wideout.
“Really just being able to understand what to do when a guy’s playing a certain leverage. Just understanding what to do,” McCulley said. “I feel like the mental aspect of the game really helps with the physical part, because you can’t just rely on your physical ability. So just knowing how to release off the line or what type of zone break or man break you need to do really helps.”
McCulley is now Indiana’s leading receiver on the season, by a healthy margin. He’s caught 40 passes for 524 yards and five touchdowns — DeQuece Carter is second on the team with 298 yards.
The junior is built like a wide receiver capable of playing at the next level. He’s 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, and very athletic. He can go up and get jump balls, and he has the ball skills to make difficult catches.
But some of that physical stature and speed he displays on Saturdays is because of changes he made in the offseason. McCulley improved his diet, cutting out sweets — he’s big on candy, particularly Skittles — and eating more chicken and rice. He slimmed down, losing weight and body fat.
That change stemmed from wanting to get quicker. One of the big things McCulley had to adjust to after switching positions was how much more receivers run than quarterbacks, and he realized he needed to improve at persisting through fatigue. He brought that up to wide receivers coach Anthony Tucker in their first meeting after IU hired him in late February, and he’s seen a lot of growth in that respect.
“With him, really, it was playing when you’re tired. Being focused and pushing through that fatigue. It’s a mental thing, pushing yourself beyond what’s comfortable,” Tucker said. “The receivers, in most offenses, they’re going to run more than anyone on the field at a given point. For him as a youngin’ that, when you come from another position and you’re not used to that volume, that’s a mental hurdle that you’ve got to be able to work yourself through.”
Those changes helped him improve entering this season, but to some, they started becoming even more distinct within the last few weeks. Donaven’s older brother, Derin, noticed him looking more bulky lately — and, Derin said, senior assistant athletic director for football performance Aaron Wellman also noticed it.
McCulley has also made big strides at some of the more under-the-radar aspects of wide receiver. He’s become a more precise route-runner, his releases off the line of scrimmage are much more explosive, and he’s improved as a blocker.
He was already athletic, and already had a positive and competitive personality. McCulley’s wide smile he often sports on the field stands out just as much as any of his other physical characteristics.
And as he’s further adapted to his new position, he’s channeled those attributes in the right ways.
“Everyone sees catches and things like that. To me, when you turn on the film, the thing that sticks out about him is how relentless he is blocking on the perimeter, truly going and trying to make his presence felt in the run game,” Tucker said. “You turn on film and you watch guys that play like that, you can see guys that love to compete and love to play football. I think that’s what’s given him the opportunity to make the progress that he has.”
Derin, a walk-on receiver transfer from Ball State, hasn’t been surprised by his brother’s breakout at wide receiver. They both grew up playing quarterback, but they played everywhere on the field. So wideout wasn’t a completely foreign position for Donaven — he just hadn’t played it at higher levels. But the brothers often practiced on their own in high school, and Donaven would mess around and make the sorts of one-handed catches he made against Wisconsin.
For Derin — along with Pierre and other teammates — the biggest difference in Donaven this year compared to last year is the confidence he developed through experience and reps.
“I know he trusts his ability, if he lines up in front of anybody, you know you’re going to get the 100 percent version of him,” Derin said. “The confidence was a real big thing going into, especially, this season. You could see him start to believe in himself and line up against somebody, (he’s) like, ‘He don’t got nothing on me, I could beat anybody.’ You started to see it.”
McCulley’s emergence has come at a critical juncture for Indiana’s wide receivers room. The Hoosiers have a plethora of wideouts they’re confident in, but especially with Camper out for the rest of the season, the junior appears to be their top option.
And for a player with relatively less mileage at the position, he has plenty of room to continue growing and improving his game. To many, including offensive coordinator Rod Carey, McCulley’s potential is limitless.
“I think if Donno keeps working the way he has been working, the improvement, you’re seeing it go at kind of a pretty steep incline right there. Sometimes that happens with guys that switch positions, and they have such great physical attributes. But it only happens when you’re willing to do the work. And he has been willing to do the work,” Carey said. “I don’t know where the ceiling is for that kid. I hope there isn’t one. But it’s fun to see, and it’s a tribute to him.”
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