Even with a defender draped around his hip, Donaven McCulley still found a way to make a play.
Late in the second quarter in Indiana’s win over Wisconsin on Nov. 4, redshirt freshman quarterback Brendan Sorsby lofted a high-arching pass into the corner of the end zone that seemed impossible for a receiver to haul in — except the 6-foot-5 McCulley.
The junior wideout adjusted his body midair and inexplicably wrapped a few of his right fingers around the ball. From there, McCulley was able to corral it toward the safety of his chest, all while keeping his feet in bounds for a touchdown.
“I was pretty amazed,” Sorsby said after the game. “It makes me look a lot better than I am. It’s easy to throw it up to a guy that’s that big and makes that kind of catch.”
Just a few plays earlier, McCulley rose for a leaping grab with a defender glued to his back. Just as it appeared McCulley would be brought down for a modest pick-up, he somehow contorted himself away from the turf and spun into the open field for a 32-yard gain.
Senior wide receiver E.J. Williams, who transferred from Clemson University this past offseason, played with a number of bigger bodied receivers with the Tigers. Justyn Ross and Joseph Ngata, two of Williams’ former teammates, excelled with their mix of speed and jump-ball ability.
Even after seeing the likes of Ross and Ngata, both of whom are on NFL rosters, Williams believes McCulley is still one of the more unique players he’s come across.
“Donaven McCulley is definitely a special receiver,” Williams said. “I’ve not seen a lot of guys be able to go up and make the catches he makes.”
His teammates may be in awe of him, but McCulley said these types of spectacular plays are typical. In fact, he said he makes catches of equivalent difficulty in practice all the time. Even though he converted quarterback to wide receiver prior to the 2022 season, McCulley feels right at home.
The physical tools were obvious from the outset of his collegiate career. McCulley, who arrived in Bloomington a 4-star quarterback prospect from Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, has always been particularly potent scrambling and making plays off script.
As the highest rated quarterback recruit in program history, McCulley garnered lofty expectations as a freshman. Though initially buried behind Michael Penix Jr. and Jack Tuttle on the depth chart, McCulley ultimately made four starts following injuries to the two.
McCulley impressed in his first start — he threw for 242 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Maryland — but the rest of his season was rockier. Despite sparking some optimism as the Hoosiers’ starter moving forward, Indiana added veteran University of Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak in the portal, leaving McCulley with a murky role in the quarterback room.
So, McCulley made the decision to switch positions — something he wanted to do his whole life.
“I’ve always wanted to play receiver,” McCulley said Aug. 15, 2022. “When I went to high school, I had to play quarterback because I was really the only one there that could throw the ball. I’ve always just seen myself as an athlete that can do everything on the field.”
His sophomore season numbers at receiver were underwhelming. McCulley made one pass attempt, tallied four carries on the ground and totaled just 16 catches for 169 yards. He only had two games with more than two receptions, and just two games with over 20 yards.
With a limited route tree and inexperience with releases off the line of scrimmage, McCulley took this past offseason to commit to learning the finer nuances of the position. McCulley raved about new receivers coach Anthony Tucker and collaborated with Williams and senior Cam Camper, two other taller Hoosier wideouts, to polish his skills.
This season, McCulley’s taken on an enhanced role as a pass catcher. And he’s looked comfortable. McCulley’s already doubled his yardage total from last season, and he’s been one of the Hoosiers’ go-to red zone options.
Still, his appetite to master the position persists. He said Williams has been impactful in his development, teaching him how to stay low and compact in his release off the line.
“I watch him every single day trying to take little nuggets from E.J.,” McCulley said after the win over Wisconsin. “I’m learning from him.”
After posting five catches for 69 yards and a touchdown against the Badgers, McCulley said it was one of the most fun days he’s had as a receiver. But with three games left in the season, and bowl eligibility still a possibility, McCulley remains focused on his work.
He said he continues to work extensively with Sorsby after practice and on off-days to grow their rapport and work on red zone routes. With Camper sidelined for the remainder of the season, McCulley could see an uptick in targets.
Offensive coordinator Rod Carey said McCulley has shown a full willingness to put in the necessary work. Carey shies away from professional comparisons but likened McCulley’s size and speed combination to Pro Bowler Kenny Golladay, whom Carey coached at Northern Illinois University.
Before last season, McCulley detailed aspirations of not just making it to the NFL, but becoming a Hall of Famer as well. Williams resolutely said McCulley has the talent to make it to the next level.
Carey had a bit of a harder time forecasting McCulley’s career trajectory.
“I don’t know where the ceiling is for that kid,” Carey said Nov. 6. “I hope there isn’t one.”
McCulley knows the menace he can enact on opposing defenses. Often towering over defensive backs, McCulley said he needs to impose his will every play. Still not even two full seasons into his position switch, that mentality is something McCulley has translated into on-field production.
And it’s something he plans to maintain in the future.
“That’s a big thing for me,” McCulley said. “Just being a dawg.”