It wouldn’t be a stretch to say helping Donaven McCulley to reach his potential at wide receiver is right in Adam Henry’s wheelhouse.
During a nine-year stint as the receivers coach at his alma mater (McNeese State), Henry was routinely dealt athletes he had to mold into route-runners, blockers and pass-catchers.
“Most of the time when I got a receiver (out of high school), he never really played receiver,” Henry said back in March. “A lot of times, he was a great quarterback or running back; he played baseball and basketball; was an athlete.
“We sculpted them into being a receiver. That is where I got my tenure of experience coaching guys and developing them to play receiver and the technical part of it.”
At the Power Five level of college football, more often than not players have been specializing in their preferred position for years before they arrive on campus.
McCulley’s story was a little bit different.
An elite athlete with great size, McCulley could do it all at the prep level. He started on a state runner-up basketball team at Lawrence North H.S. Whether on the field or the court, he seemed to excel, and that included throwing the football. His big arm combined with the ability to escape the pocket dictated the direction of his high school football career.
And the results were stellar. McCulley was a 4-star recruit, a top-250 talent in the 2021 class overall, and the No. 25 quarterback in the country according to the 247Sports Composite.
But it wasn’t a path McCulley necessarily would have chosen.
“I’ve always wanted to play receiver,” the 6-foot-5 McCulley said on Monday in Bloomington. “That’s just always what I’ve seen myself as. In high school, I had to play quarterback. I was the only one there who could throw the ball.”
A wave of injuries led McCulley to see the field at quarterback last year sooner than anyone had intended. And a byproduct may have been some soul searching by the Indianapolis product.
“Coming to college and playing quarterback, it didn’t go so well the first year, but it is what it is,” he said.
McCulley says that he’s always just seen himself as an athlete who can do anything on the field, so he went to IU head coach Tom Allen with the request to move to his preferred spot. The hope now is he can quickly pick up the finer points of playing receiver and put his big frame and high-end speed to the test.
He appears to be working with the right guy to fast track that development.
Henry has coached some of the best receivers in the last decade with Pro Bowlers CeeDee Lamb, Anquan Boldin, Amari Cooper, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, and Zach Miller. He knows what the evolution at the position looks like, from an athlete at McNeese State, to the best-of-the-best in the NFL.
What does Henry see in McCulley right now?
“He’s very athletic. He has a good catch radius where you can put it up and really go and get it. It’s just the little details that he’s learning,” Henry said.
“He knows the conceptual thought process of the routes and what to do but it’s the little things in getting open. You can’t always use your body because you’re bigger than everyone to get open. And at times you have to beat them with your feet instead of your body. So, for him he’s progressing steadily, and he’ll ask questions and for him he has a tremendous ceiling also. With a body like that, he can make plays.
“The biggest things is doing a lot of cone drills, keeping your shoulders over your toes. It’s not how fast you can run a route, it’s how fast you can get in and out of breaks. So doing a lot of drills where you can stick your foot in the ground and get open.”
After playing quarterback throughout high school and his first year of college, McCulley readily admits the change was unnatural at first.
“When I first went to wide receiver it was weird running routes because I wasn’t really used to it,” he said. “But just working with Coach Henry every day is getting easier. I need to work on getting in and out of my routes but I’m getting better and that was the biggest thing for me.”
Indiana’s competition at wide receiver appears to be wide open this fall as the Hoosiers look to replace last year’s starters on the edge, Ty Fryfogle and Miles Marshall.
McCulley appears to be in a win-win situation.
Still just 19 years-old until January, he could take this as a development year working with Henry, play four games or less, and be ready to make a splash in 2023 still with three years of eligibility remaining.
Or McCulley could accelerate the process and make an impact now if he’s ready. He’s two inches taller than any other receiver on the roster. That’s something not even Henry can teach, and something his quarterbacks can’t resist.
Indiana is placing a heavy emphasis on scoring touchdowns in the red zone this year, and McCulley’s big body out on the edge could prove to be a major weapon in that regard.
“A lot of times he’s going to win with his body,” Henry said. “So if he can put his body in certain positions, big is always open. Quarterbacks love throwing to big guys, so he has that upside that he always looks like he’s open.”
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