Story Poster
Photo by Matt Freeman
Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame assistant Deland McCullough talks tailbacks, details, more

March 29, 2022

Deland McCullough, widely considered an absolute star in the coaching ranks -- the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs tried to hold onto him before Indiana did the same, and the NFL’s Giants also tried to hire him after he arrived at Notre Dame -- met with reporters Tuesday after the Irish's 6th spring practice

Q: What are the detail elements being focused on right now?

DELAND MCCULLOUGH: The No. 1 thing is just being detailed. There’s a certain way that you do things in this game, especially at this position, that can really highlight or indict our offensive line. If we’re running with detail, as far as our footwork and technique, and just the way that we operate and do our thing, with the offensive line that we have these guys are really going to be highlighted.

I’m looking at our offensive line and checking out the cut-ups and there were times, like, ‘Hey, here is where the ball is supposed to go.’ I’m looking at it as if I was an NFL guy. So I’m evaluating these guys. That’s what I was asking some of these guys, ‘Where is this ball supposed to go right here? So why are you out here? The ball’s supposed to go here.’

Q: And you feel Harry Hiestand is the guy who can maximize that from the OL?


DM: Absolutely. To me, it’s a symbiotic thing to where he’s going to do what he’s going to do, and if he’s going to block this thing to go here, that’s where we’re going to run. That’s where our reads take us. It’s really important to me just to be detailed, make sure guys understand their reads and why we’re doing it the way we’re doing it, understand why we do the drills we do.

My history is very, very, very strong as far as that and what the result will be when we operate that way, and that will be how it will happen here.

Q: So what do you have in that running back room?

DM: Shoot, I got the full scale of what I need. I got, I’m looking at him right now, Chris Tyree, a super-fast guy. Smart guy, leader in the room, tough, can do all the things you need in space, and is tough enough to run up inside. And that’s the challenge that I put out to all these guys; there’s nothing wrong with putting your head down and barreling up in there and getting 5 yards. Understanding you’re setting the defense up for something down the line.

Just because it looks kind of hazy in there, long as you’re seeing Notre Dame jerseys, run behind the them. If you see Notre Dame jerseys going that way (downfield), run behind them, bury your head in there and get 4 yards and get up and get out. That’s just the relationship that has to happen between the O-line and the running backs, that when I block this thing, that’s where the guys run it. Keep running it where it’s supposed to go.


With the type of dynamic guys that we have, when they do that on a consistent basis, it sets things up for the long ball. We’ve got guys that break the creases across the board, featuring Chris and JD (Jadarian Price), guys that are really, really fast. And then you’ve got guys that are elusive and can keep the chains moving and power forward and make first-level guys miss with Audric (Estime) and Logan (Diggs). Just an exciting group.

Q: What have you learned about Audric’s approach?

DM: I tell you what, I like it. The guy’s very confident, got a great smile on his face, got great energy. But here’s the thing, those are things that … are not superficial but that don’t make you a great football player. So let’s go over to football now. On a football field, tough, knows what he’s doing, embraces the details, embraces the competition, plays with great pad-level. The thing that surprises me is his feet; like I didn’t know the guy had foot-fire like that. You look at him and say, ‘OK, this is a big downhill, run-through-your-face guy.’ And yes, he will do that. But he can catch the ball on the perimeter, got great hands, way better than hands than what on the surface I would think, catch the ball in space, make guys miss, he’s an intriguing guy for sure.

When you put all these guys in the mix, you got something special.

Q: With three underclassmen, is the biggest challenge this spring in the details?

DM: We’re going to get there. The thing is, I’ve been in situations, whether it be the NFL and you’ve got Clyde Edwards-Helaire coming in and he’s a starter as a rookie and never played in the NFL. And here he is, ends with over 1,100 yards and could potentially be saying he had his best year as a rookie. There’s a coincidence and there’s some circumstance there. But I feel very, very confident with what I can do with my teaching methods, the drills we do, the mentality that’s instilled into that room, starting with me even a young guy that’s going to be able to show up and play high-level football.

Q: What have you seen from Jadarian so far?

DM: Shew, I tell you what. So the first day we did football school, that first day I came into the coaches’ locker room and I was like, ‘This guy is really, really good.’ (They said), ‘Ah, we haven’t even done anything.’ I said, ‘I’ve done been around this long enough to know I see a guy, the way he moves and do different things and things like that, if he’s got some toughness, we got something.’ So I was telling one of the other people of who I was talking to, I remind him, especially at the beginning parts of practice and spring ball, he’ll go in and I’ll say, ‘This is major-college football. You better come ready. These guys are coming out here trying to kill you.’ And he’s done a great job just embracing being physical, being detailed. He’s trending up, just like the rest of the guys, but he’s doing a great job. He’s strong, he’s smart, he’s gaining the weight. I asked him before spring break, ‘What are you trying to do? I get that you’re a freshman, but I’m going to play guys. You need to gain more weight.’ And he did. He probably gained 7 or 8 pounds over spring break. He’s 195 pounds now. I’ve been impressed with him.

Q: Diggs hit the home run a lot in high school. Do you talk to him about running behind those ND jerseys?

DM: At the end of the day, I said, ‘Man, you’ve got to find four-and-a-half yards, periods. But you have to do it within the constructs of what the framework of the blocking is.’ I call it junkyard football. I don’t like junkyard football, guys just running all over the place. I don’t like that. If the play blocked is the A-gap play, run the A-gap first. If the play is supposed to go off-tackle, run there first. Here’s the reads. These guys have been given very specific reads that they didn’t have before, I’m guessing, based on my conversations with them. Here’s the things that they’re looking at, and I think these guys have felt really emboldened when they see those reads like, ‘Wow, this stuff is like, it’s there.’ I said, ‘They’re undefeated. These reads are undefeated. In the NFL, all we did was study. I didn’t recruit. All the time, study. Football.’ These guys all just laugh when I scream out ‘Football!’.

Diggs is a big guy, takes great angles when he hits the hole, he’s got a good feel for not taking the big hit, I think he sets up blocks well. I think with these reads that I’m bringing to the table, could make him even play faster through the hole. That’s what I’m looking for. Because he’ll get it, he’s got a little Le’Veon Bell in him. And I had the same thing with Le’Veon. Come up, ‘Hey, Le’Veon, here’s the read here. If I’m running inside-zone right, and my readgoes left, I’m hitting the gas to the right. It’s over. Everything I’m doing is full-speed, making full-speed decisions based on what’s in front of me. I don’t need to survey the whole scene anymore.’ So like I said, those reads give a level of security of I’m know what I’m doing, I know where I’m going, I don’t have to 100% rely on my instincts for level 1.

I told the guys, ‘What’s the difference, are you a great running back? (They answered) ‘Yeah, I’m a great running back.’ I said, ‘I was around a great quarterback, Pat Mahomes. Do you think because he’s a great quarterback, he just dropped back and just throws the ball? He still reads something. OK, it’s cover-2, I’m doing this; it’s cover-3, rotation. Why can’t you get a pre-snap indicator? Why can’t you as a play’s going on on Level 1, or Level 2, get a read? And then your instincts can take over. Your ability to run the ball comes in to play once you diagnose what the defense is giving you and what the reads are. Now you’re really, really doing something.

Q: How are the backs developing in terms of potentially being used out of the slot, as Kyren Williams at times was?

DM: I think there’s been definitely some sparks, positive sparks there up to this point in spring ball that showed these guys can be more than formidable out there in space. Continuing to bring ideas, Coach Rees has a great pulse on what’s going on as far as what he wants to see with the running backs in space. I know I’ve brought a couple things as far as getting the running backs downfield route-runners and getting the ball in these guys’ hands because they’re dynamic when they get it.

Continuing to work on catching the ball, understanding how to play off leverage. To me, it’s still all details. Here’s what we’re doing. The beautiful thing with these guys, and they’ll take what you’re telling them at face-value, but my style has always been to tell them why and they really like that. Like, it’s not, ‘OK, do this do that. This is why we’re doing it. OK, it makes sense to me now.’ So they can embrace the teaching even more and internalize on a higher level. To answer your question, we just continue to put these guys in position to show that they can do it. We talk about attracting trust. Actions attract. You can be me in a meeting room and have all the answers, but you come out onto the football field, that’s different.

Under Armour White/Gray Notre Dame Half-Zip

subscribe Verify your student status
See Subscription Benefits
Trial only available to users who have never subscribed or participated in a previous trial.