CLEMSON – — For Jay Jay McCullough, last Saturday was a major relief.
For the first time in approximately 22 months, the Fort Mill native was on the field in a live, meaningful football game. While the redshirt freshman tight end’s contribution – three catches for 15 yards in Clemson’s 52-13 blowout of South Carolina State – flew below the radar, it was a promising start for a guy who has big goals for his college career.
“It feels real good, man,” McCullough said. “I missed that feeling of getting to go out there and play football. It’s been what, a whole year since I played a football game. It was a real good feeling to get out there.”
After working as a running back, receiver and even a defensive end during his Nation Ford High School career, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound McCullough was recruited by Clemson as a tight end. He’s perfectly happy there, and he has an excellent role model – Indianapolis Colts tight end Dwayne Allen.
McCullough said he and Allen have spoken about the position frequently. He is trying to emulate the John Mackey Award winner, and then some.
“I’m used to getting the ball and just running around,” McCullough said. “(Allen) was a great player here. I look at a lot of his film and see things he did here. The way he plays, I’ve learned from it a lot. I’m still learning from him a lot. Hopefully one day I can break all his records and make my name in history. Because I want to break all his records.”
Just like McCullough, Allen redshirted his freshman season at Clemson.
“He told me how redshirting his freshman year helped him going into the next fall,” McCullough said. “When they put you in a redshirt position, they’re doing it to better you – get you in the weight room, help you get stronger. Work with better technique. Giving you the things you didn’t have when you first got here to get you ready for the collegiate level.”
Nation Ford coach Michael Allen isn’t surprised by McCullough’s success. Allen, who is in his third year as Nation Ford’s head coach, is in his seventh year on the staff. He spent the previous four years as a running backs coach and defensive coordinator.
He has coached NFL players such as Darren Sharper, Jamie Sharper, Phillip Adams, Shawn Barber and Ko Simpson in his career, and knows talent when he sees it.
Allen first noticed McCullough as a high school freshman, and said he was “a man among boys.”
“He had two things that go hand in hand with success at the next level from an athlete standpoint,” said Allen. “Size and speed.”
Three years ago against rival Northwestern, McCullough took the first carry from scrimmage 70 yards for a touchdown.
“That got everyone’s attention,” Allen said. “He’s a very blessed athlete. Watching him go through the process, he’s been very focused on being successful.”
Allen said McCullough never wavered from his Clemson commitment, even though Alabama showed interest and South Carolina, Miami (Fla.), Kentucky and Duke offered scholarships.
His size, speed, hands and athletic ability made him a natural fit in Chad Morris’ offensive system, which heavily uses tight ends. With Brandon Ford, Sam Cooper and others already on campus last fall, redshirting was a foregone conclusion.
McCullough accepted the decision, but he didn’t love sitting.
“Yeah, I was itching to get out there (last week),” he said. “Waiting that long, all you’re thinking about is what you can be doing or what you would be doing in this game or that game.”
While he sat, McCullough learned the game from the sidelines, getting a feel for the speed and absorbing the playbook. Senior tight end Darrell Smith became a mentor; McCullough was a frequent guest at his house.
“I would spend time with (Smith), he’d give me better knowledge for the following year,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff that goes on. If you’re not studying, if you’re not in that playbook, you won’t grasp it.”
Clemson is deep at tight end, with Smith, Cooper (who just returned from a torn ACL), sophomore Stanton Seckinger and fellow freshman Jordan Leggett.
“With this team we have now, we all can go into that rotation,” McCullough said. “I’m sure coach won’t have just one 3-back out there doing all the jobs. That helps at that position a lot, to keep fresh legs and speed.”
If McCullough has his way, he’ll be all over the field, just like always.
“With the offense we have, where they can put me, it’ll fit real perfect,” he said. “With me at 3-back,or wing, I have linebackers that cover me a lot. I believe I have an advantage over the linebackers. I believe it’s pretty easy to get by whoever they have me matched up with. I still might have a linebacker on me, and it’s easy to get past those guys.”