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Donaven McCulley 'Always Wanted to Play Receiver,' Absorbs Details with Adam Henry

Donaven McCulley was the highest-ranked quarterback to ever commit to Indiana, but after one season, he's making the switch to receiver. Indiana wide receivers coach Adam Henry said McCulley has an impressive catch radius, and he's working to refine his footwork and learn the intricacies of the position.
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Donaven McCulley approached Indiana coach Tom Allen about a position change this offseason. He played seven games as a true freshman and drew national recruiting interest for his dynamic ability at quarterback, but it turns out that McCulley has long envisioned using his athleticism and 6-foot-5 frame in a different way.

“I’ve always wanted to play receiver,” McCulley said. “That’s just always what I’ve seen myself as.”

Allen said it was a gradual process that involved discussions with McCulley’s parents, high school coaches, offensive coordinator Walt Bell and wide receivers coach Adam Henry. But ultimately, Allen views this switch as a way for Indiana to maximize its roster. Henry interprets it as a sign of maturity, saying McCulley saw an opportunity to make a more immediate impact with a larger ceiling for growth at a new position.

“Just digging within himself and saying, ‘This is where I want to be,’ for him, that’s going to help him,” Henry said. “Because when you’re somewhere where you want to be, not to say quarterback wasn’t, but to help the team, and also the upside of him playing receiver is tremendous.”

McCulley grew up playing quarterback, running back and wide receiver and views himself as an athlete that ‘can do everything.’ When he arrived at Lawrence North High School, McCulley said he had to play quarterback because he was the only player that could throw the ball.

McCulley passed for 6,211 yards, rushed for 1,274 more and scored 47 touchdowns at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, Ind. When he chose to represent his home state and play for Tom Allen in June of 2020, McCulley became the highest-ranked quarterback to ever commit to Indiana.

He arrived in Bloomington as the No. 4 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2021, beaming with upside. Perhaps Indiana found its quarterback of the future.

Allen said Indiana would have liked to use a redshirt season for McCulley in 2021, but after injuries to starter Michael Penix Jr. and Jack Tuttle, McCulley was forced to attempt his first pass as a college quarterback on Oct. 23 against No. 5 Ohio State.

What followed was four starts and seven total appearances in a true freshman season that, as McCulley said on Monday, “didn’t go so well,” In total, McCulley completed 35-of-85 passes for 475 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, while rushing 64 times for 135 yards with two touchdowns.

But at times, McCulley showed flashes of the dynamic athleticism he so often portrayed at Lawrence North. He set the Indiana true-freshman record with 242 passing yards in his first career start against Maryland, finding tight end Peyton Hendershot for a pair of touchdowns. His freshman season will also be remembered for the third-down run to the two-yard line against Michigan to set Indiana up for a touchdown.

In McCulley’s final start of the season versus Minnesota on Nov. 20, he went 3-for-7 through the air with two interceptions. It became clear that Indiana didn’t trust him to pass the ball, and Allen and offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan decided to start walk-on Grant Gremel against Purdue in the season finale.

“It says dual-threat,” Allen said after Indiana’s loss to Minnesota. “Dual means you do both. If you’re not dual, then you’re just one-dimensional … To me, that is definitely [McCulley’s] strength, to be able to run the football, but you’ve got to be able to throw it as well.”

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McCulley is now all-in on the move to wide receiver. Running routes at practice was a bit weird for McCulley at first, but he said the learning process is getting easier each day. Getting in and out of his routes has been a big area for McCulley as he works to refine his game with Henry.

Henry arrived at Indiana this season after spending the last seven years coaching NFL Pro Bowl wide receivers such as Odell Beckham Jr., Anquan Boldin, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Jarvis Landry.

But before he broke through to the NFL, Henry coached at McNeese State, where his receiving corps was often made up of former high school quarterbacks. This taught him how to sculpt athletes into receivers, which he’s now doing with McCulley.

“10 years of just coaching receivers and redefining and creating that position and allowing those guys to grow from playing quarterback and little running backs. So for me, to go back to that is really, really refreshing because now I can really mold these guys.”

At 6-foot-5, McCulley is Indiana’s tallest wide receiver, and his catch radius and athleticism were traits that immediately stood out to Henry.

Henry has noticed McCulley quickly catching on to the conceptual thought process of route running, but it’s the small details that will take time to develop. Henry has stressed to McCulley that, while his height and athleticism are beneficial traits, he has to learn to beat his defenders with footwork.

Through cone drills and change of direction exercises, Henry is striving to teach McCulley the intricacies of the wide receiver position.

“A quarterback loves to throw to a big guy,” Henry said. “So he has an upside on that because he always looks like he’s open, but the details of getting in and out of breaks is going to help get more separation for him.”

McCulley’s prior role as a quarterback appears to be a benefit in the transition, as well. He feels comfortable meeting with Indiana quarterbacks Jack Tuttle and Connor Bazelak to discuss ways he can make things easier for the offense. When the quarterback scrambles, McCulley said he has a feel for where the quarterback is looking because of his experience in that position.

So far, Henry is pleased with the way McCulley is progressing. There’s still room to grow and details to learn, but that doesn’t temper his personal expectations for the future.

“I want to go all the way to the NFL, Hall of Fame, all of that,” McCulley said. “I want to be one of the best to ever do it.”

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