Donaven McCulley has been taking reps in practice as the backup quarterback since Michael Penix went down three weeks ago. But that wasn’t enough time to have him ready for the challenge that awaited on Saturday night when Jack Tuttle went down.
McCulley’s role has changed quite a bit since he was the third-string quarterback and effectively serving as the scout team QB when Penix was still healthy. That scout team role helped to ensure that he was still getting reps, but it was mostly in the opponents system rather than Indiana’s.
That dynamic, coupled with just how little football McCulley has played to this point in his life relative to the level of competition in the Big Ten helps explain why he didn’t appear to be quite as far along as many had hoped when his number was called against Ohio State.
“Donaven was getting minimal reps with us,” offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan said on Monday in reference to the first- and second-team offenses in practices prior to Penix’s injury. “He was there for certain periods to make sure he was mentally sharp and he would still get an occasional rep or two. He was back and forth between being up with us and being on scout team just so he could continue to develop and play football.”
When Tuttle was injured on Saturday and it was time for McCulley to take over, it became obvious rather quickly the Indiana coaching staff wasn’t prepared to turn their 4-star true freshman loose.
Instead the staff turned at times to third year walk-on Grant Gremel, a name very few outside of the program knew until Saturday night. Gremel was effectively the fifth-string quarterback on the depth chart when factoring in the loss of Dexter Williams to a season-ending knee injury during spring practice.
On a rainy night in Bloomington and Ohio State’s uber-talented front-seven with their ears pinned back, a trial-by-fire for McCulley didn’t make sense to the IU staff.
McCulley is one of the highest rated recruits to ever commit to Indiana, and he plays in an era when college quarterbacks of that caliber have proven at times to be ready in year one. And with that in mind, that IU turned to Gremel rather than McCulley on certain passing downs came as a surprise to many.
How was it after three weeks of practice as the backup, and with all of those high school accolades McCulley wasn’t ready? It turns out McCulley’s ratings as a recruit are more about who he can become rather than who he is right now. That’s true of any recruit, but it is especially the case for McCulley, who only just arrived at IU in June, and didn’t commit himself exclusively to football in high school.
“Being a guy that was a three-sport athlete [in high school], that just didn’t sit around and play football in his off season, he was playing other sports, which is fine, that’s part of his past and that’s part of who he is and makes him as athletic as he is, but also created a situation where he did not have a lot of the rep base that maybe other guys may have,” head coach Tom Allen said on Monday.
Perhaps against a different opponent, with different weather conditions, there would have been a greater degree of comfort with seeing what McCulley could do.
But against Ohio State in the rain, there wasn’t much of an appetite for seeing if McCulley would sink or swim.
“It (the Tuttle injury) obviously happened very early in the game and then it’s raining, so it’s really tough for a kid being his first opportunity against such a high-level opponent in tough weather conditions,” Allen said. “It just created a tough situation for him without a doubt. I thought he improved throughout the game and am glad he got all those reps. It will definitely pay dividends moving forward, no matter how much he has to play in future.”
Now with Maryland looming and both Penix and Tuttle’s statuses uncertain, the plan is to prep McCulley as the No. 1 all week.
Will that be enough time to really let him take over?
It sounds like the staff intends to try to find out, but Gremel is also still in the equation.
“Donaven needs to get as many reps as possible,” Allen said. “You have to have that mindset. He’s going to be the guy, and then we’ll see what happens. Bottom line is that would be the approach is to get him ready and get Grant ready as well. Those two guys have to be getting the majority of the reps and getting themselves in position to play.”
Whoever starts at quarterback will be leading IU in what is for all practical intents and purposes a must-win contest. Already with five losses and a top-ten road game looming the following week, the Hoosiers could fall out of contention to play in a bowl game with a quarter of the season still remaining.
That the job of leading Indiana in a situation like that might fall to a freshman who was supposed to redshirt or a walk-on who wasn’t supposed to play at all is quite the quandary for this staff.
“It’s a challenging situation for us to be in at this point in that room,” Allen said. “We have those guys that are there, and they’ve got to be ready to play.”
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