Donaven McCulley has always been an athlete first.
He’s never seen himself as a quarterback, not in high school and not as a freshman at Indiana. He only played there in high school because none of his teammates could throw like he could. It worked well enough there for him to be recruited by Indiana, where he enrolled as the highest-rated quarterback recruit in program history.
But after a one-year trial run at the position never worked out, McCulley went to Tom Allen and asked to play wide receiver.
“I’ve always wanted to play receiver. That’s just always what I’ve seen myself as,” McCulley said in a press conference Monday. “When I went to talk to coach Allen about the decision, he wanted to know why, and I told him why and he was on board with it.”
McCulley talked with Allen and offensive coordinator Walt Bell. The conversation led to McCulley moving to a position he’s more comfortable in, with three years to grow.
“That's maturity,” wide receivers coach Adam Henry said in a press conference. “Digging within himself and saying '(the WR room) is where I want to be.’ For him, that’s going to help him because when you’re somewhere you want to be — not saying quarterback wasn’t — to help the team and the upside of him playing wide receiver, that’s tremendous.”
The upside of McCulley at wide receiver is obvious for someone of his stature. He’s listed at 6 feet, 5 inches and 210 pounds, easily the biggest wideout the Hoosiers have. There have been some growing pains, natural for a switch so late in his career. Route running caught him at first, and he still has to nail the footwork. But his athleticism has made it easier.
“It’s natural,” senior wide receiver Emery Simmons said. “He’s just a natural athlete. At this point with him at the wide receiver spot it’s just more so crafting him, molding him to learn certain routes, get in and out of breaks, how to break down defenses and coverages.”
Fortunately for McCulley, he’s learned that last one from playing quarterback. He’ll just have to learn the process from a new point of view over near the sideline. But being a quarterback before has allowed him advantages other wide receivers don’t have.
When a quarterback scrambles, McCulley has a good idea of where he’ll want to throw the ball, making it easier to adjust his route. He talks to quarterbacks Connor Bazelak and Jack Tuttle, having conversations about how they can help each other.
“At the end of the day, they’re throwing the ball so I try to do what they want me to and just see if I can get open easier for them,” McCulley said.
McCulley and Simmons, who transferred in from North Carolina, are two of several new additions to the wide receiver corps, joining the program from all different areas. Alongside those two are Cam Camper, who transferred from a junior college in Texas; Andison Coby, a junior Tennessee transfer; and freshman Omar Cooper Jr.
Camper’s work ethic quickly stood out to Henry and the coaches, who took to calling him ‘coach Cam’ because he’s always hanging around the coaches’ offices. Allen said his studying and his work ethic are showing up in practice. For Cooper, his football IQ is what stands out to Henry, who is pleased with how well the freshman is picking up the playbook so far.
All those new faces leave graduate student D.J. Matthews Jr. as one of the most experienced members of IU’s offense, despite only playing four games in his first season with the team before tearing his ACL.
As a result, Matthews is taking on a leadership role within the group, but he’s also not trying to be someone he isn’t.
“I just have to be me,” Matthews said. “I’m not the type of guy to be yelling at people or trying to make sure everybody is doing everything right. If I see something, I’ll point it out. If people have questions, I help them. Not all the time do I know the answers, so they help me too. It’s just building a bond and building trust with one another and that’s just what we’ve been doing as a unit, just growing closer to each other.”
Matthews nearly didn’t return for a sixth year after suffering his season-ending injury last year, telling his parents he was going to be done, he said. But through his relationship with Allen, he started to reevaluate the decision.
“Until you’ve gone through that (ACL injury), it’s hard to really understand the mental strain that puts on you,” Allen said. “For he and I, we’re pretty close. We spend a lot of time together, 1-on-1, and just helping him develop as a man, and that’s something we have really been able to do quite a bit. But he was struggling.”
Allen and Matthews talked together about what it would take to return from surgery, where Matthews wanted to be. Allen said he stayed real with Matthews and wanted him to go where he wanted to be, whether that was back to Indiana or home to his family.
The final point that drove him back was that he didn’t want to let his two children down.
“I never want to quit,” Matthews said. “My children look up to me. I’m their hero, so when they get older, they’re going to see the trials and tribulations that I went through and all of the adversity that I faced. I don’t ever want them to see that I quit anything.”
The refresh of the wide receiver room for this season leaves questions for what the position group will achieve this season, questions that have taken a backseat to the ones about which quarterback they will be catching passes from. But Matthews is excited about the playmakers Indiana has and the bond the wide receivers have cultivated.
“We’re united as a whole right now,” Matthews said. “There’s times we’ll be together outside of football and just building trust with one another. That just makes you wanna play harder for your brother, you know, you want to be in competition and go to battle with your brother.”