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IU football: Donaven McCulley’s physical gifts, development at WR earning trust in big moments

With the game on the line on Saturday, Indiana’s Connor Bazelak turned to a fellow quarterback.

Sort of.

Donaven McCulley arrived in Bloomington in 2021 as Indiana’s highest-ever rated quarterback recruit. For four years at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, McCulley played the position. Last season for IU as a freshman, he started four games at quarterback and made appearances at the position in seven.

But after years under center, a change came during spring practice this year, when at his own request, McCulley switched to wide receiver.

While the newly-converted wideout had just 16 receiving yards in his first two games of the 2022 season, McCulley hit his stride in Indiana’s 33-30 overtime win against Western Kentucky last weekend, catching two passes for 53 yards, including a 48-yard play over the middle of the field on a pass by Bazelak. In addition, McCulley caught the game-tying 2-point conversion from Bazelak near the end of regulation to force overtime.

Wide receiver Javon Swinton said that the goal for the group going into the week was to get more players involved in the passing game – and McCulley stepped up to the occasion.

“You just see his growth, coming from quarterback and making that jump,” Swinton said Tuesday. “He wasn’t as comfortable at first, but now we’re really seeing how much potential he has. And it’s actually really good to see.”

Not only have teammates taken notice of McCulley’s quick adjustment to the position, but coaches have as well. Offensive coordinator Walt Bell has been most impressed by the 6’5” receiver’s size and jump ball ability.

On both his 48-yard catch and his 2-point conversion, McCulley’s large frame made the difference.  He delivered a stiff-arm on the 48-yarder that sent a much smaller defensive back ten yards in reverse.  And on the 2-pointer he fought through contact and worked himself wide open.

That McCulley was even on the field with Indiana down 30-28, needing a two point conversion, speaks volumes for what his big body brings to the offense, along with his technical development on the edge.

“Weight classes exist for a reason. Big guys, typically, for the history of civilization, have beat up little guys,” Bell said Monday. “He’s got a great frame…He plays with the ball above the rim, up above his facemask, as good as any guy I’ve been around.”

Going high into the air and coming down with the ball is nothing new to McCulley, despite this being his first season at wide receiver. The sophomore played basketball for Lawrence North, starting at power forward during the team’s run to the IHSAA Class 4A State Championship Game in 2021.

That multi-sport experience, something head coach Tom Allen values in high school recruiting, has come in handy for McCulley during the position switch.

“I have a bigger catch radius, so when the ball is not in the spot it needs to be, I can make a good play,” McCulley said. “It’s like rebounding the ball.”

McCulley’s basketball experience is not the only part of his athletic background that has helped his transition from quarterback to wide receiver be a smooth one. His five years of high school and collegiate quarterback play – including one in which he played in over half of IU’s games – has provided him with a unique perspective on his new position.

Having played quarterback for so long has helped McCulley and Bazelak develop chemistry, which showed in the closing moments of regulation Saturday, when the pair sent the game to overtime in the final minute.

“From a quarterback standpoint, you want your receivers to know what you’re thinking, that helps me after a bad play, I can talk to Connor and see what I can do better to get open,” McCulley said. “Sometimes, he’ll say stuff to me that the other guys might not know.”

One thing Bazelak says that everyone knows — McCulley has all the tools at his new position.

“He’s got unbelievable skill, great size, he can run, he can catch,” Bazelak said.  “He’s kind of a perfect fit for a receiver, and he’s continuing to grow.”

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