Known as “Tailback U,” USC football has boasted a history of developing talented running backs. With players such as Mike Garrett, O. J. Simpson, Charles White and — more recently — Reggie Bush and LenDale White donning the Cardinal and Gold, USC has long been a destination for running backs looking for success in college and beyond.
While the Trojans have retained almost the entirety of their coaching staff from the 2016 season, the new face at Howard Jones Field is running backs coach Deland McCullough. After serving as the running backs coach at Indiana University from 2011 to 2016, McCullough now has his turn to shape the next generation of “Tailback U.”
McCullough replaces former running backs coach Tommie Robinson, who left USC to take a position under former football interim head coach Ed Orgeron at LSU. Replacing Robinson, a man who had NFL coaching experience, was a tall order for head coach Clay Helton and offensive coordinator Tee Martin. In their search for Robinson’s replacement, the Trojan coaching staff was looking for a handful of traits: a proven track record, character that aligned with the ideals of the program, a savvy Xs and Os guy and an effective recruiter.
McCullough fit the bill, and the new coach recalled his pitch to Helton and the Trojan staff before the start of spring football.
“I stressed to them the small things, whether it be our linemen, reads on runs, footwork [or] hand placement,” McCullough said. “I’m just a detail freak.”
That attention to detail has allowed McCullough to analyze the nuances of his job.
“One thing I think is overlooked as a running backs coach is that our job is a big job,” McCullough said. “It isn’t just handing the ball off to the guy that’s doing it. You’ve got to give him reads and angles to take. I try to be a great student of the game, and then I turn around and try to be a great teacher, too.”
With no previous connections or ties to USC, McCullough’s hire was relatively out of the blue.
“He was recommended to us by a couple people both in the pro ranks and in college that we know,” Helton said. “We started doing our research on him, and you looked at a guy that was a great evaluator of talent. But even more important was how he developed talent. We really thought we had a gem, a diamond in the rough.”
Martin echoed Helton’s praise, saying McCullough won over the USC staff in a half-day when he interviewed for the job. And McCullough was more than happy to accept the offer.
“[USC] was almost like a place you couldn’t imagine from where I grew up,” McCullough said. “You’d see all these things — the Heisman guys and the prestige of the whole university. Obviously when Coach Helton called I was like, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable.’”
McCullough said that the opportunity to join the Trojans coaching staff was unexpected. He was a star player at the University of Miami in Ohio from 1992 to 1995, leading the RedHawks in rushing all four seasons of his college career. Following a professional career that included time with the Cincinnati Bengals, Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Chicago Enforcers, McCullough began working in education. He was a teacher, athletic director and head football coach at Harmony Community School in Cincinnati.
Since then, McCullough’s coaching career has taken off. He returned to his alma mater in 2010 but left promptly to become the running backs coach at Indiana. His track record at Indiana caught people’s attention at both the professional and college level. McCullough was instrumental in the development of three NFL running backs during his time as a Hoosier: Stephen Houston, Tevin Coleman and Jordan Howard each found immense success at Indiana under McCullough’s tutelage. Coleman was instrumental for the Atlanta Falcons in their Super Bowl run this past season, and Howard made the Pro Bowl in his rookie year in 2016. McCullough will likely add another name to that list soon, as Indiana junior Devine Redding declared for the NFL Draft in January.
Besides his track record, what has set apart McCullough from the rest of the pack is his background as a teacher. Throughout his career, McCullough said he learned the skills necessary to teach young men how to not only learn the nuances of the game of football but also be a “leader of men.”
“I like [McCullough’s] attention to detail, and I can see the guys already progressing from it,” Helton said. “Especially [junior running back] Ronald Jones II — right off the bat, he’s doing things that weren’t showing up last year.”
When asked about the differences between Robinson and McCullough, Jones, who is looking to improve his pass blocking and vision in the hole this spring, said the latter “is definitely more of a teacher.”
“He played running back at the professional level, so he knows what it takes to get there,” Jones said. “He’s giving us tools and different ideas that I’ve never even thought about.”
McCullough has received praise from his colleagues for his attention to detail when it comes to the fundamentals of the game.
“One thing I was looking for in the interview process was running backs coaches that had a great history of their backs taking care of the football,” Martin said. “That’s the thing he’s bringing to the table, and you can already see it in our guys.”
While Los Angeles is different from Bloomington, Ind., McCullough isn’t planning to deviate from his blue-collar mentality.
“I like tough guys who want to be great,” McCullough said. “If they have a great attitude and great effort, we’re going to get it done.”
And while USC is undoubtedly a bigger football school than Indiana, McCullough plans to stick to what has worked for him in the past.
“I’ve got a formula that really works as far as getting guys’ trust,” McCullough said. “But more important is showing them what I can do to help them advance what they’re trying to do in their life.”