CHARLESTON – Darshon McCullough heard the instructions.
“We’re trying not to punt from our end zone,” a coach’s voice boomed as Eastern Illinois’ offense set up with its backs to O’Brien Field’s south end zone.
The goal was to find breathing room. That’s it. McCullough lined up in the backfield, heels in the black end zone turf, took a handoff and smashed aside contact. No defender caught him until he crossed midfield.
Task accomplished with authority. And no one was happier about it than McCullough himself, the senior who, 11 months ago, was literally going backwards. He’s now deep into the first true competition for lead back duties of his college career and going through it with a toothy grin on his face.
“I get to focus on sticking on one position and perfecting my craft,” McCullough said. “And it feels good to be back with my O-Line.”
McCullough is one of six scholarship running backs in EIU’s fall camp, and all are vying for a role in a wide-open backfield that lost its top two rushers from 2018. McCullough, Courtney Rowell and Robert Columbus are the holdovers and the only three who have carried the ball in a game for EIU before. That does not entitle them to lead back status over EIU’s two freshmen or grad transfer Chris Walker, though.
McCullough is OK with that. He has a chance that offers him real belief he can do something, and do it at the position he has played since he was 6 years old. His career arc to this point has been that of a secondary player who has provided some value, but never quite enough to warrant anything more. Last season, that wore on him as his role waned.
After a Sept. 22 win over Tennessee Tech in which he had one carry for minus-2 yards, McCullough approached EIU’s former staff about a position switch or taking a redshirt The latter was still possible with the NCAA’s new four-game redshirt rule. He was a junior with 130 career carries stuck behind all-conference running back Isaiah Johnson and usurped by junior college transfer Jamal Scott.
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The year before, Johnson arrived as a juco transfer and swindled primary back duties right away, leading McCullough into a complimentary role again. Perhaps, he thought, this may be a pattern that doesn’t end.
“I was desperate and I just wanted to have an impact on the team,” McCullough said.
He moved to defense and, a month later, made the first of his three starts at the “Star” hybrid linebacker/safety position. He enjoyed it, he said. He learned new technique, like how to backpedal properly in coverage. But something was still missing.
EIU did not renew head coach Kim Dameron’s contract and hired Adam Cushing a few weeks later to replace him. When Cushing noticed the dearth of returning running back production (which increased more when Scott left the team after the spring semester), he targeted McCullough for a move back. EIU did the same with Rowell, originally a running back who moved to defense in 2018 as well.
“We had a great back here last year with Isaiah,” Cushing said. “That’s a big hole and the production coming back wasn’t there. We looked at it in the offseason, and in talks with (holdover linebackers coach) Adam Gristick, who had intimate knowledge of the program and knew what kind of athlete Darshon was. He said he has a bunch of ability, he just wasn’t going to beat out an all-league guy.”
Technically, EIU has an all-conference player in its backfield this year – Walker was all-Ivy League in 2016 as a sophomore at Cornell with EIU offensive coordinator John Kuceyeski as his position coach. He’s not guaranteed anything either. The goal in constructing the running back room was to create competitive depth that ideally produces at least three capable rotation players. Just on percentages alone, anyone in the room has a 50-50 shot at one of those spots.
If McCullough continues to do way more than just create better punting position or whatever else he’s asked, though, his chances may well be no coin flip.
“When you look at him, he’s really athletic and he’s really smart,” running backs coach Omar Young said. “The sky’s the limit for a guy like that. And then his willingness to be a team player to do whatever the team needs, if that’s running the ball, playing defense or catching a kick. We’re excited to see what he ends up doing this year. He’s having a hell of a camp right now and he’s ascending at the right time.”