Brooks: McCulloch Didn’t Get His Wish (Or Did He?)
BOULDER – For as long as he’s been on the University of Colorado’s football roster, Tyler McCulloch has longed to see “TE” adjacent to his name. For various reasons it never worked out, and four years later McCulloch still wears the “WR” tag he brought to Boulder.
Then again, not being a tight end might not be such a bad deal. He could be at the halfway point of his most productive season as a wide receiver – a position he says he’s never played as well as now. And, what’s more, he’s often being utilized as a quasi-tight end.
He could be enjoying the best of two worlds. First, though, his TE tale and how it never officially materialized.
McCulloch arrived at CU in 2011, and like most incoming freshmen, believed redshirting was the path he would take. That would provide him a year to add more weight to his 6-5 frame – he came in weighing 205 pounds – and start to resemble a tight end.
“J.D. Brookhart (former tight ends coach) always wanted me to do that,” McCulloch recalled.
But after a freshman season in which he played in all 13 games (two starts) and made 10 catches for 96 yards and a touchdown, the switch to tight end was delayed. One primary reason: The depth at receiver was nearly nonexistent.
“Going into my sophomore year, it was basically me and (Nelson) Spruce,” McCulloch said. “I just couldn’t do it.”
So he remained at receiver, and as a sophomore had his most productive season, catching 34 passes for 436 yards and a pair of TDs. His receiving totals (receptions, yards) were the second-best on the team, and in the final game against Utah he made a season-best six catches for 88 yards.
Still, there was that longing to switch positions.
“After that year my heart was set on it,” McCulloch said. “It was going to happen. Brookhart was on board, (Jon) Embree (head coach), ‘Coach Black’ (strength coach Malcolm Blacken) all told me to gain weight over Christmas break.”
But before McCulloch could return to Albuquerque for the holidays and several plates of home cooking, the business side of college football disrupted his dream.
“The whole staff lost their jobs,” he said. “I kinda didn’t know what to do with these new guys coming in. So I went through the spring (at receiver) and I thought about how I’d best help the team.”
He helped as long as he was able, which was basically the first half of the season due to a foot injury that was diagnosed as a stress fracture. He finished his junior season with 14 catches for 138 yards and one score.
Which brings us to 2014 . . . and McCulloch’s thoughts still wandered to becoming a tight end for his final CU season. He had gained weight –getting close to 220 pounds – but another roadblock surfaced.
“This year I was set on it again because we’ve only got (Kyle) Slavin and (Sean) Irwin as official tight ends on the depth chart,” he said. “I thought that’s how I’d help the team again, but (coaches, trainers) thought if I gained more weight I’d put more stress on my foot. So they said hold off.”
Tight ends coach Klayton Adams said the offensive staff “went back and forth” with the possible position switch but came down on the side of what was best for McCulloch and the Buffs.
“A lot of times in that in-line blocking you can aggravate the injury, then maybe he’s not able to play at all,” Adams said. “We wanted to do everything we could to make sure he was at full strength for this season and it’s worked out really well.”
Plus, even if McCulloch isn’t officially listed as a tight end, “That’s basically the position he’s playing when we’re in ‘10’ personnel,” Adams said. “He’s running a lot of those interior routes. He’s got a big body and he’s kind of playing that role for us on passing downs and doing a heck of a job.”
The big difference, added McCulloch, is he’s upright: “I’m basically playing tight end without putting my hand on the ground.”
So McCulloch stands tall as a receiver and often functions as a tight end. Adams believes McCulloch, had his foot injury not been an obstacle, could have made the transition. “I could see him doing that,” Adams said. “I think he’s tough and a smart guy who could figure things out . . . as it is, he’s doing a lot of things a tight end does. He’s one of the reasons we’ve been in ‘10’ personnel a little bit more.”
But if McCulloch needed a reward for not making his long-sought switch, it’s come in spending two seasons under receivers coach Troy Walters. “He’s made me a completely different receiver,” McCulloch said. “I grew real quick when I was in high school – nine inches in one year. I’ve always been kind of growing into my body. Since he’s been here, he’s taken me to the next level in working on the little things, the things that receivers struggle with daily like getting in and out of breaks and playing hard when you’re tired. I just feel like a completely different receiver.”
The difference has shown in the first half of the season. With 18 catches for 238 yards (13.2 yards per catch) and a pair of TDs, McCulloch is on pace to make his final season his best. In the season’s first two games, McCulloch said he “was kind of pressing. I’d been out for so long (with the foot injury), when I came back I was trying to be too perfect. Then I kind of looked at myself and realized what I was doing wrong. I just realized I had to relax and play football. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life and that’s what’s been working for me.”
Both of his touchdown receptions came in last weekend’s 36-31 loss to Oregon State at Folsom Field. His final stats: four receptions for 76 yards and the two TDs. But his afternoon was bittersweet.
“Other than loss, which was heartbreaking, it was a really good feeling for me personally,” he said. “I’ve been able to make an impact in a few games this year and that was actually my first and second touchdowns at Folsom. So that was a pretty special feeling.”
He’s hopeful something even more special – a handful of Pac-12 wins --is on the way in the Buffs’ final six games. He won’t close out his CU career listed as a tight end, but he’s grateful to be healthy and contributing.
During this week’s bye, coach Mike MacIntyre said the team is “working on fundamentals” while preparing for its trip to Southern California (Saturday, Oct. 18). MacIntyre said the Trojans “are very talented and I think they’re getting used to their system now (under new coach Steve Sarkisian). You see it developing so it’s going to be tough test for us, but our kids are improving and I think we’re ready to go play.” . . . . MacIntyre also said he is becoming more impressed with his young defensive linemen during each practice, singling out ends Jimmie Gilbert and Derek McCartney. “(They) are really starting to make some plays, rushing the passer, doing some big things.” . . . . McCartney, a redshirt freshman, leads the team in sacks with four, which is the first time a freshman has led CU in sacks since Alfred Williams in 1987. Gilbert, a sophomore, leads the team in quarterback pressures with eight.