McCulley man of hour — and future for IU football


This was supposed to be a watch-and-learn football season for Donaven McCulley. Now he is on a weekly learning curve, trying to absorb every X and O, nuance and trick in the playbook before the end of the semester.

Staying upright is the first rule of football survival, and McCulley, an 18-year-old freshman from Indianapolis, is essentially the last man standing for Indiana at quarterback, the EMT rushed to the line of scrimmage.

Seasoned and slick Michael Penix Jr. was scheduled for a 2021 star turn after his late-season injury in 2020. Then he got hurt again. Jack Tuttle, last year’s back-up, was tapped on the shoulder again. Then he got hurt.

This left coach Tom Allen reviewing the resume of troops on the roster to see who had ever thrown a pass in his life. McCulley figured to redshirt. Now he is the starter, against Michigan Saturday, and for the remaining games, if neither Penix nor Tuttle can come back this month.

IU began the season ranked in the top 20 and coming off last year’s fresh-team-of-the-year showing it sounded just right. Then the Big Ten started looking as formidable as the AFC West.

The Hoosiers of pre-season promise have crumbled. They are 2-6 and five losses are owed to ranked teams. IU has lost tight games that seemed within reach, to Cincinnati, Maryland, and Michigan State and its 14 transfers who showed up on the doorstep in East Lansing.

Injuries wrecked IU’s optimistic plans, but so has inopportune poor play and it will take herculean pep talks by Allen to boost morale, restore self-confidence, and convince the guys what must seem like a lost season isn’t a throwaway season.

“The guys took it hard,” Allen said of raw Hoosier feelings after the 38-35 Maryland defeat last Saturday. “…a lot of emotion in that locker room afterwards.”

The defensive backfield has been as shackled by injuries as the quarterback spot and Allen fretting over lack of depth back there some games.

Still, there are a lot more eyes on McCulley than on back-pedaling defenders. When he came into the game on a hurry-up basis in the Ohio State massacre, it seemed the coaching staff trusted McCulley only to run.

Then he was force-fed practice repetitions and made his first start versus Maryland. McCulley threw for two touchdowns and no interceptions. Worries the 6-foot-5, 200-pound neophyte at the college game would look bewildered were proven wrong.

Offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan spent the game on the sidelines rather than sitting in the press box for better access to tutor McCulley in the midst of the live action and that seemed to work well.

“I felt comfortable,” said McCulley, who wears the very noticeable “0” on his uniform jersey. “It’s just the speed of the game, but I’m catching up.”

If he surprised anyone throwing for 242 yards after previously only showing off his feet, not his arm, he said he wants it to be a signal he is a complete player.

“I want to be a dual threat,” McCulley said, “a guy that can run and pass the ball.”

McCulley sounded level-headed and he also realizes how outsiders will view him, including No. 9 ranked Michigan’s defense.

“I’ve just get to get ready for them to play tricks on me because I’m a young quarterback,” he said.

IU, recognizing McCulley’s performance under fire with limited time of preparation, awarded him a game ball souvenir.

“It was cool,” he said, “but I wanted the win more.”

There is only so much babysitting to be done during a game, only so much developing that can be accomplished at a hurry-up rate, only so much rushing of maturity. Allen knows IU needs strong QB play right now.

“You know, I don’t care what level you’re at, if you want to be able to be an elite offense, you’ve got to have an elite quarterback,” Allen said. “And he has to play at an elite level and has to play at a high level of execution and getting the ball out and getting the reads.”

It will be quite the crowd at quarterback later, when Penix and Tuttle are healthy. Could be McCulley reorganizes the depth chart. He may become the first man standing.

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