January 27, 2010
If there's any player at this week's Senior Bowl proceedings who stands out immediately among the dozens of other NFL wannabes, it's Ole Miss tailback, Wildcat back, receiver, occasional return man, pastry chef, archaeologist, stunt pilot and all-purpose bon vivant Dexter McCluster, and in more ways than one. Most obviously, at 5'8", 165 pounds, McCluster is by far the smallest player in Mobile, and if he entered training camp at that weight in the summer, he'd likely replace Tampa Bay cornerback Elbert Mack as the smallest player in the entire NFL -- including kickers and punters. No running back in the league, even San Diego mighty mite Darren Sproles, has consistently played below 180 pounds in well over a decade.
Through the first half of the week, though, McCluster also seems to have emerged as the most eye-opening, fast-rising player on either roster in Mobile. After Tuesday's practice, he was drawing comparisons to former undersized Pro Bowlers Leon Washington and Warrick Dunn while solidifying his status as a second or third-round pick in April; when such an outside-the-box talent gets the extremely inside-the-box NFL punditry gushing over him as the "buzz player" of the week, you can be sure he's legitimately lighting it up.
Maybe that shouldn't be surprising after McCluster exploded out of last season with a Heisman-worthy run over the last six games, including lights-out efforts against Araknsas, Auburn, Tennessee, LSU and Oklahoma State. In fact, coming off that finish to his college career, his performance in Mobile and pending draft status make it that much more surprising that it took Ole Miss so long to convert its most dangerous weapon into an every-down option. Before the Rebels' Oct. 24 game against Arkansas last fall, McCluster had averaged just shy of eight offensive touches for 71 yards per game over the first three-and-a-half years of his career, earning 20 touches only once, when he went off 180 yards in the blowout Cotton Bowl win over Texas Tech last January. That was despite playing for the SEC's lowest-scoring, least explosive offense as a freshman and sophomore and averaging 8.4 yards every time he touched the ball when his all-purpose role expanded to include Wildcat duties from the shotgun in 2008.
It wasn't until the Arkansas game, seven games into his senior season, that somebody on the Ole Miss staff had the idea to just make McCluster the starting tailback, and D-Mac rewarded them by torching the Razorbacks for 260 yards in a 30-17 Rebel win. He went on to average 221 yards on 29 touches per game down the stretch, carrying at least 22 times in five of his last six; the Rebels won six of their last eight overall and took their second straight Cotton Bowl (where McCluster had 229 total yards and both of the team's offensive touchdowns against Oklahoma State) to secure back-to-back nine-win seasons for the first time in nearly 50 years.
It's possible Ole Miss didn't think he could take the pounding of a feature back across an entire season, or held back because of a couple persistent injuries early in McCluster's career that cost him the last half of 2006 and the first month of 2007. It's also much tougher to write that outburst off as a fluke when he goes on to burn a group of all-stars in the same fashion. Maybe the moon has entered a brief, four-month McCluster Phase, never to return again. Or maybe two consecutive coaching staffs under Ed Orgeron and Houston Nutt really did wait far, far too long to light the fuse on one of the most explosive players ever to come through Oxford. We'll see where he goes from here.