Deland McCullough returns to the Indiana coaching staff with a decision to make.
After three seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs that included a pair of Super Bowl runs and one Lombardi Trophy, McCullough takes over an Indiana running back room that needs to find a new starter and create a new system of roles and rotations. There is talent, but there’s no one on the roster who has proven they can be a featured back in a Power 5 program. Even USC transfer Stephen Carr, who was a five-star recruit when he joined the Trojans back in 2017, was never the man in the Land of Troy in his four seasons there.
McCullough has less than a month to determine which backs will see the field and which will get the most carries. He says he won’t be weighing any specific criteria more than the others. He won’t necessarily be looking for the most explosive back or the one who shows the best ball security or the one who is the best pass blocker.
The player who starts at running back at Indiana doesn’t have to be the best at any one facet of the position. He has to be able to do everything well.
“It’s the most complete guy,” McCullough said in a press conference Friday. “I don’t want to be in a situation where we gotta pass and I don’t trust this guy in pass protection. Or we got a situation where, I don’t trust him. He’s a great runner, but he fumbles every 20 carries or something like that. The guy gotta be a complete guy. He’s gotta be able to do everything. Yes, you’ll put guys in positions to maximize things, but as far as who your starter would be, he’s got to be the most complete guy. You can complement with guys in other areas, but your starter has to be the most complete guy.”
It’s McCullough’s call, ultimately, and Indiana coach Tom Allen supports his approach. He wants the same thing McCullough wants — to have a starting running back he can trust in any situation.
“You get into fall camp, see how they handle the day-to-day when we start practicing,” Allen said. “All the things that makes them become a complete back. Picking up pressures, being good in pass pro, being a complete guy. Can you catch it out of the backfield? Can you obviously make a guy miss when you got the ball in your hand? Understand the playbook. All those little things it takes.”
At the outset of camp, there appear to be three frontrunners for the job — Carr and returners Tim Baldwin Jr. and Sampson James. Baldwin Jr. rushed for 141 yards on just 22 carries last year as a true freshman, a team-high 6.4 yards per carry. He’s at the top of the preseason depth chart. However, James has 371 career yards and three touchdowns to his name in two seasons as a backup to Stevie Scott after a spectacular career at Avon High School and Carr has the benefit of being the most experienced back in the room.
“The great thing is, you have a bunch of guys who understand what is at stake,” McCullough said. “There’s going to be an opportunity for all of them to show what they can do. … We’re trying to spread the reps around. We’re trying to give a bunch of guys to give opportunities behind the No. 1 offensive line, but more importantly no matter what line they’re behind, making sure their details and execution are on the level they need to be. It will be a day-to-day thing. All the guys are embracing the execution and that’s what you want.”
Junior David Ellis is also part of the competition and he gives the Hoosiers a particularly intriguing option. The converted wide receiver still has more career receptions (27) than rushes (25) and a lot more career receiving yards (310) than rushing yards (114), but there’s a lot about the 6-foot-1, 214-pounder that McCullough likes. He will at least be part of the rotation as a change-of-pace option, but McCullough isn’t ruling out the possibility that he can win the starting job.
“When you start talking about the higher-end skill sets of the guys on offense, David Ellis’ name is going to continue to come up,” McCullough said. “The thing I want as a running backs coach, yeah, I know he’s a dynamic athlete when you talk about the running back position. I want him to show some of that grit and toughness as far as hitting that up inside, moving the pile, getting behind his pads. Being a complete player who can play with velocity and power also. I know he can play with finesse, bounce it outside, but I want him to be able to put his foot in the ground and run over somebody’s face, be strong in pass protection, be a complete guy. Those are some things I want to see David take the next step for.”
McCullough made it clear that he’s not only looking at the four players currently listed in the depth chart either. He’s been impressed by Davion Ervin-Poiindexter, the team’s most outstanding walk-on player last season, and he’s impressed by redshirt freshman Charlie Spegal. The 5-foot-10, 219-pound Spegal was Indiana’s Mr. Football in 2019 when he rushed for over 3,000 yards in each of his final two seasons at New Palestine High School. He’s the state’s all-time leading rusher with 10,867 yards in his high school career.
“Nobody wants to tackle the guy,” McCullough said. “That’s a good quality to have. Nobody wants to tackle him. That’s something you want to continue to play off of. We want Charlie to play with more urgency, he has done that. Get him to play with more detail, he has done that.”
Giving opportunities to walk-ons is something McCullough takes very seriously. Five running backs who joined Indiana as walk-ons when McCullough did his first stint at Indiana ended up earning scholarships and playing time.
“As far as I’m concerned,” McCullough said, “there will never be a guy under me, either a scholarship or a walk-on guy, who will be able to say, ‘Coach McCullough didn’t give me an opportunity to show what I got.'”
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