Donaven McCulley, Jaylin Lucas provide IU with gadget opportunities as they develop

BLOOMINGTON — Donaven McCulley found out at the beginning of last week he was going to throw a pass in last Saturday's game against Maryland, so he spent all week telling the wide receivers room about it.

Offensive coordinator Walt Bell told the sophomore quarterback-turned-wide receiver he wanted to run a reverse pass that would give the ball to McCulley and have the former Lawrence North star throw downfield to quarterback Connor Bazelak, a play reminiscent of the Philly Special the Eagles used to beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

"We'd been joking with him, 'You better not mess up,'" wide receiver Emory Simmons said. "'We know you played quarterback, but you haven't been back there in a minute, so you better not mess up.'"

Indiana's Jaylin Lucas (12) runs during the Indiana versus Maryland football game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.
Indiana's Jaylin Lucas (12) runs during the Indiana versus Maryland football game at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.

McCulley didn't. The Hoosiers ran the play on 1st-and-10 at the Maryland 26 in the last three minutes of the first half, and Bazelak was in fact wide open. McCulley hit him on the money and Bazelak went down at the Maryland 3-yard line for a 23-yard completion. On the next play, Bazelak found wide receiver Cam Camper in the end zone on a fade route to put the Hoosiers up 17-14 in a game they would eventually lose 38-33.

"He got back to the sideline and he was like, 'I told y'all,'" Simmons said. "I was like, 'Well you did play quarterback. You're supposed to do that.'"

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It was the first time this season McCulley had thrown a pass after completing 35 of 82 for 475 yards and two touchdowns last season when he was thrust into duty as IU's starting quarterback before he decided in spring he wanted to make his position switch.

The play was evidence of Bell gaining comfort with his offensive weaponry and using the skillsets of the Hoosiers' second- and third-line players to activate the gadget section of his playbook. That comfort also comes from the fact that two of his young players whose skill sets allow for an expansion of play-calling creativity are becoming more comfortable with the basic responsibilities of their positions.

McCulley's transition to wide receiver has been more of a challenge than he imagined, but he's making progress and caught three passes in each of his past two games. Meanwhile, freshman speedster Jaylin Lucas has seen his workload increase at running back. Lucas had a season-high seven carries against Maryland and even though he was stuffed for -4 yards, his increased playing time suggests Bell is willing to put more trust in Lucas' speed despite his 5-9, 170-pound frame.

Indiana's Donaven McCulley (1) scores the two-point converstion during the Indiana versus Western Kentucky football game at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 17, 2022.
Indiana's Donaven McCulley (1) scores the two-point converstion during the Indiana versus Western Kentucky football game at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 17, 2022.

Neither one of them are quite ready to be first-string players, but they add a level of unpredictability to an offense that can use any help it can get. The Hoosiers rank 11th in the Big Ten in both scoring and total offense.

"Any time you have guys who are on the field that the defense has to worry about something special that they can do is just to your advantage," Indiana coach Tom Allen said. "You have a guy like Donaven who's played quarterback and the different things he can do with the ball in his hand, and a guy like Jaylin who has tremendous quickness and burst. He's got short speed and long speed and that quickness piece and that gives him the ability to make plays in multiple ways whether that's in the backfield, on the perimeter or in the return game."

Lucas was recruited because putting the ball in his hands always gives the Hoosiers a chance at an explosive play. He was a constant home run threat as a high school player in Louisiana, where he also ran a 10.6 100-meter dash at the Class 5A state finals. His fifth carry as a college football player went for a 39-yard run against Nebraska and he also ran for 34 yards on a rush against Michigan.

But as explosive as he is, getting a running back who just turned 18 in September with a build as slight as Lucas' on the field against Big Ten teams is more than just slightly tricky, especially with a pair of veteran backs with more powerful builds in Shaun Shivers and Josh Henderson. As Bell mentioned earlier this month, it is also tricky in Indiana's uptempo offense because part of the premise is to keep the same 11 on players on the field without substituting because it prevents the defense from substituting and wears them out.

So getting Lucas on the field more means him showing proof that he can not only bounce outside for big runs, but that he can run in between the tackles, catch passes out of the backfield, and most importantly, pass protect. Running backs coach Craig Johnson acknowledges there is still lots more progress for Lucas to make in each of those areas, but that he's also made significant advancements in all three.

One thing that's helped, he said, is Lucas has special teams responsibilities both as a kickoff returner and as a gunner on the punt coverage unit.

"Like a lot of young backs, where I saw the confidence was on special teams," Johnson said. "Of course, he's a kick returner so he gets to touch the ball. He took a hit, he broke a couple of tackles, he had good ball security and I could see the spring in his legs and the look in his eyes. He knew, 'I could do this, I can play at this level.' Since then, that's continued to increase."

Johnson said Lucas is getting better at running at different speeds to set up blocks instead of going all at one pace, and even though he's often giving up between 50 to 100 pounds to pass rushers who break through the line, he's learning how to do the best he can to slow them down.

"That's something that we work on pretty much every day," Johnson said. "I know that as a smaller guy, most guys look at him and think, 'I'm bigger than you. I'm just going to try to bull rush you.' We have given him some pointers about how he can not allow that to happen as much as possible. At the end of the day, it doesn't have to be pretty. He just has to keep the guy away from the quarterback as much as possible."

Said Lucas: "What I learned is you have to do is really just chip them. Just having a good little base. Be inside their numbers and make sure you're a little bit under them. Make sure all your weight is not on your feet but on your toes and you just keep driving."

The more the Hoosiers can trust him in those situations, the more they can keep him on the field where they can move him around to become more unpredictable. He can motion into and out of the backfield.

"As Jaylin continues to mature in the offense, he's a guy who we can kind of make a jack of all trades," Bell said. "He plays wideout. He 's done a lot of different things for us to create space touches for him."

McCulley obviously doesn't have any issues with size at 6-5, 210 pounds, but he has had to get used the technical aspects of playing wide receiver. As a quarterback he always knew the basics of a wide receiver's responsibilities, but didn't fully appreciate the workload until he moved over.

"Receiver is definitely harder than it looks," McCulley said. "You just continuously run all day. That's something I had to get used to. I thought it would be easier. I didn't think they ran so much, but I'm getting used to it now."

He's spent a lot of time picking the brains of the veteran wideouts on the roster, especially Cam Camper, but also D.J. Matthews, Emory Simmons, Javon Swinton and Andison Coby. He originally struggled with the finer points of route running, but said he's made progress there and is now working on releases.

"Just working on having a man and getting off the guy so you can make a play," McCulley said.

McCulley has mostly operated with the second wide receiver shift. Camper has been the team's top outside target. Simmons and Matthews have traded starts at the slot with Matthews missing some time with a hamstring injury. Swinton and Coby have been the outside receiver starters with opposite Camper.

But McCulley has gotten plenty of work with the second line and he has 12 receptions for 112 yards, and though he doesn't have a touchdown yet he believes his size will eventually make him a strong red zone target.

Still, the more he's on the field the more he can be used for gadget options. He's taken snaps under center as a wildcat quarterback and has four rushes for five yards this season, including a short-yardage touchdown. And when he lines up at wide receiver, the Hoosiers can create easy opportunities for him to throw a pass.

"In that area of the field, you're expecting man-to-man," Bell said, discussing McCulley's throw on Saturday. "When you expect man-to-man, somebody's got No. 1 on both sides, somebody has No. 2 on both sides, somebody has No. 3. Nobody has the quarterback. It was kind of natural. They lost the quarterback as usual."

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: IU football: Jaylin Lucas, Donaven McCulley add wrinkles to offense