Indiana Daily Student

‘From the bottom up’: Walk-ons thrive under Indiana football’s Deland McCullough

<p>Indiana running backs coach Deland McCullough watches players Aug. 11, 2021, during fall camp at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington. Former Indiana walk-on running back Alex Alex Rodriguez, another former Indiana walk-on who played from 2014-2017, has kept in touch with McCullough, his former coach, since graduation.</p>

Indiana running backs coach Deland McCullough watches players Aug. 11, 2021, during fall camp at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington. Former Indiana walk-on running back Alex Alex Rodriguez, another former Indiana walk-on who played from 2014-2017, has kept in touch with McCullough, his former coach, since graduation.

Indiana football’s running back meetings are early in the morning, and some players are still tired by the time they get to the group’s room at Memorial Stadium.

That’s before running backs coach Deland McCullough arrives.

His exuberant voice fills the room as soon as he enters. His jokes and greetings wake his players up for the day ahead. The term “walk-on” seldom, if ever, leaves his lips during the course of the meeting and practice afterward.

Head coach Tom Allen hired McCullough, who had previously coached for the Hoosiers in the same capacity from 2011-2016, to replace the outgoing Mike Hart this past February. For walk-on running backs like juniors Davion Ervin-Poindexter and Chris Childers, McCullough’s hiring meant an opportunity to play.

Ervin-Poindexter, who walked onto the team in 2019, didn’t see any time at running back in his first two seasons but played on special teams in every game in 2020. Hart’s system emphasized just one or two running backs, Ervin-Poindexter said.

Under McCullough, Ervin-Poindexter is second on the team in rushing yards and owns Indiana’s longest rush at 37 yards. Childers is right behind him among active rushers.

Indiana has lost two scholarship running backs, sophomore Tim Baldwin and junior Sampson James, to the transfer portal in 2021.

“They look at me as just another guy on that team that’s contributing,” Ervin-Poindexter said. “There’s not really a difference between a walk-on and scholarship.”

Andrew Wilson, who played under McCullough as a walk-on from 2012-2015, said the opportunities given to Indiana’s current group of walk-ons doesn’t surprise him. He’s seen it firsthand.

“Based off of my experience working with Coach McCullough for four years in the IU running backs room, I know that he has full confidence in his players,” Wilson said.

Wilson wasn’t a highly-touted prospect coming out of Columbus East High School, where he was a team captain and set single-season school records. Wilson said he had opportunities to play at smaller schools, but Indiana was his dream school, and he’d do whatever it took to play for the program.

He started his career on the scout team as a freshman. Three years later, Wilson would be named Indiana’s Outstanding Walk-On Player of the Year following his senior season under McCullough. He posted a career-high 52 rushing yards and a touchdown against Purdue.

“He builds his running back team from the bottom up,” Wilson said. “Whether you’re a Tevin Coleman or a Jordan Howard or just a guy like me just trying to prove himself.”

Sophomore running back Alex Rodriguez runs the ball during a play in the second half against Purdue on Nov. 16, 2016. Rodriguez has kept in touch with his former coach, Deland McCullough, since graduation. Noble Guyon

Alex Rodriguez, another former Indiana walk-on who played from 2014-2017, attended the team’s Homecoming game against Michigan State on Oct. 16 with former running back Devine Redding.

Whenever McCullough sees Rodriguez he shouts his nickname, “2kold,” at the top of his lungs, Rodriguez said. McCullough gave each of his former players a hug and took time to catch up before the game.

“He’s still the same dude,” Rodriguez said. “He has a Super Bowl ring and all kinds of other stuff, but he’s still the same dude.”

Rodriguez watched as Ervin-Poindexter and Childers contributed 73 of Indiana's 134 rushing yards against Michigan State. Rodriguez, who earned a scholarship during his junior season, said the team’s current walk-ons need to step up when they’re given an opportunity.

“They’ve all been doing an amazing job,” Rodriguez said. “They’ve gotta keep their head down, don’t let too much distract them and do what they’ve gotta do on and off the field.”

Both Wilson and Rodriguez have applied lessons they’ve learned from McCullough in their lives after graduation. 

For Wilson, McCullough’s “iron sharpens iron” mantra and emphasis on hard work has been important to his professional life in sales.

“You can’t be scared to put in the work,” Wilson said. “There’s always things you can work on and develop, and even when you think you’ve got it, you’ve still gotta go get it.”

Since his graduation in 2017, Rodriguez has worked as a high school football coach, English teacher and personal trainer. He’s kept in touch with McCullough through it all and said his former coach’s positivity has proven to be a valuable lesson.

“If you’re at work, go to work with a smile on your face, cause he did,” Rodriguez said. “No matter what was going on, no matter how he felt about some other stressors and stuff, he always had a smile in front of the running backs.”

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