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Tuesday, May 28
The Indiana Daily Student

sports football

Indiana football’s Donaven McCulley overcomes slow start for strong spring finish


Memorial Stadium was silent nearly two hours before the start of Indiana football’s spring game when a promotion for student tickets appeared on the big screen above the south endzone. 

Indiana men’s basketball guard Trey Galloway appeared on the left side, his back bordering that of football receiver Donaven McCulley — two seniors and Indiana natives, suddenly the face of Hoosier sports. 

Just over two hours later, McCulley proved why. The 6-foot-5, 203-pound wideout extended both arms, calmly soaring through the air to pull in the Hoosiers’ first touchdown of Thursday night’s open scrimmage.

For casual observers, McCulley’s spring game success and rising popularity is merely the continuation of a feverish finish to the 2023 season. Over the final five games, the Lawrence North High School graduate caught 28 passes for 420 yards and five touchdowns over the final five games en route to being an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection. 

But that idea speaks little to the trials and tribulations of his spring. 

Some 16 days before McCulley was celebrating in front of the glass windows separating the field from the W. Jay and Nancy Wilkinson Performance Center, Indiana head coach Curt Cignetti stood at the podium in the Hoosiers’ team room proclaiming McCulley needed to “pick it up. 

Evidently, he did. 

“I saw him really respond,” Cignetti said postgame. “I don't do that a lot.” 

Cignetti, who noted the quality of McCulley’s touchdown catch, said he publicly called out a player once last fall at James Madison University. On Oct. 2, 2023, Cignetti said Dukes quarterback Jordan McCloud struggled to execute. 

Like McCulley, McCloud responded, ultimately winning Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year. 

After leading the Hoosiers in receiving a season ago, McCulley entered the transfer portal Nov. 27 before returning to Indiana on Dec. 15, one day after Ohio University senior quarterback Kurtis Rourke announced his intents to join the Hoosiers via the portal. 

During Thursday night’s spring game, McCulley primarily worked with redshirt freshman quarterback Tayven Jackson and the second-team offense, not Rourke, who led the starters. McCulley has watched his standing in the Hoosiers’ receivers room slip amidst his slow-starting spring. 

But Cignetti’s tone reflects much more favorably now than before, and McCulley has the blueprint to regain his status as Indiana’s top target this fall. 

“He still has some improving,” Cignetti said. “Everybody's got to improve. I know what his goals are, to be a great player, and it starts with the way you practice, your attention to detail, how you study off the field, how you prepare.” 

The Hoosiers’ offense took a 34-25 victory over the defense in a game featuring an altered scoring structure and a touchdown run from Drew Shouse, a member of Team IMPACT, which pairs children facing serious illnesses with college sports teams. 

Shouse is a former Make-A-Wish recipient who was born with a heart defect and has overcome three open heart surgeries.

It was a feel-good end to a feel-good night for the Cignetti-led Hoosiers, with the team’s first-year head coach noting he believes considerable progress was made from the start of spring practice to the end. 

And perhaps nobody represents that better than McCulley, who now enters the summer with his arrow pointing upwards after standing on shaky ground just two weeks ago. 

“I'm glad we got him,” Cignetti said. 

Follow reporters Dalton James (@DaltonMJames) and Daniel Flick (@ByDanielFlick) for updates throughout the Indiana football offseason. 

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