By Will Vandervort.
The day Dwayne Allen became a budding star at the tight end position was the day when he started to follow the lead of Michael Palmer.
Allen, who is now the starting tight end for the Indianapolis Colts, was a self-proclaimed hothead when he first came to Clemson and he was frustrated by the fact he could not beat out Palmer for the starting job.
He did not understand why he wasn’t playing. He was more talented. He was faster and he was physically ready to help the team. So why wasn’t he playing?
“The coaches did not trust me,” Allen said.
When Allen sat back and finally watched Palmer, he could see why. Palmer wasn’t the fastest or the most talented guy to play tight end, but he was smart. He did things the right way.
Allen noticed how hard Palmer worked, how he studied and how he did the little things to get an edge on his opponents.
“Mike worked hard,” Allen said. “He wasn’t playing in front of me because he was a better athlete or was faster or had better hands than me. No, Mike was playing because he was a better football player than me. Mike could do everything.
“He may not have been the best at one thing, but he could do everything. That’s why the coaches liked Mike. They trusted him. I finally saw it and that’s when I realized I needed to put in the same time and effort that Mike did. I realized it was not Mike that was the problem, but it was me.”
When Palmer, who now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, went onto the NFL, Allen became an All-ACC performer, All-American and the recipient of the John Mackey Award, which is given every year to the nation’s best tight end.
Five years after Palmer left his mark on Allen, Sam Cooper is mentoring Jay Jay McCullough in the same way.
Though the situation is a little different, McCullough has taken the time to watch Cooper the same way Allen did Palmer. He has studied his practice habits, his techniques and the way he prepares for each and every game.
“I want to get to the point where I can play and think like he does on the field,” McCullough said. “If I can think like he does and play as smart as he does and add that to my talent then it can make me great.
“I believe I will get there eventually. I will just listen to these coaches and let them take me there. I trust them. I really trust them a lot.”
The journey to get this point, where he has become one of the Tigers more reliable players, has been a long road for McCullough. Unlike Allen, he did not come to Clemson as a seasoned tight end from high school. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound redshirt sophomore was a running back at Nation Ford High School in Rock Hill.
“I went from getting a hand off to running routes,” McCullough said. “I did not have to run routes in high school. I did not understand the separation on the field and how you had to divide the field and determine where a cornerback is and where the safety is lined up and how I need to adjust my route, accordingly.”
At first, the adjustment was really hard on McCullough. He redshirted his freshman year, where he spent the 2012 season on the scout team, while doing “Power Hour” with the rest of the freshmen that redshirted that year.
Once camp ended, he seldom got to work on improving as a tight end because he had to help the team prep of the upcoming games. When he did get to work on his craft, he found things to be extremely hard. He was not quite ready strength wise or technically sound with his blocking, running and understanding how Chad Morris’ offense works.
“I did not think I was ever going to be good at tight end,” McCullough said. “But listening to the coaches and doing everything they tell you to do, plus being in the weight room and listening to the strength coaches that all plays a role. All of that helped me become better.”
But it took McCullough two more springs and two summers to totally get the transition down. Last year, he was fourth of the depth chart and played very limited as he caught four passes for 17 yards, while playing in nine games.
The coaches stayed patient as he mostly had to work on his blocking and footwork.
“When it comes to blocking, I never knew how important your footwork has to be whether it is stepping six inches, three inches to two inches,” McCullough said. “I was used to getting the hand off and running. Hitting the hole and seeing the field and just running.
“But I trust Coach Pearman. I knew how well he coached Dwayne Allen. I know he can make me a great player as well as Coach (Dabo) Swinney.”
Though he struggled to learn the position for the first couple of years, Pearman and Swinney never stopped believing McCullough could help the team and become a productive player.
“Jay Jay, he never played tight end so it was a transition for him and there was a lot to learn, especially in our offense and what we ask our tight ends to do,” Swinney said. “Jay Jay was a running back so there is a whole lot to learn as far protection, blocking and technique and the mental part of being a tight end – it is not just running around and catching the ball. It is route running and all of that.
“But he is making good progress and we recruited him to be a good player and we think he has the chance to be a great one before it is all said and done.”
McCullough showed just how good he can be in 23rd-rank Clemson’s win over S.C. State last week when he hauled in three catches for 61 yards, including a 34-yard touchdown when he caught the ball on the near sideline and out ran the safety to the end zone.
“We are excited about Jay Jay’s progress,” Swinney said. “We have been pretty patient with him. He has been a guy that had to redshirt and last year was not quite there, but he had a good spring, good summer and a good fall camp.
“As most players, they kind of start on that redshirt sophomore year—that third year—that junior year is usually when you see guys get it. To some guys it comes quicker but most guys, especially when they are making a real transition, the light comes on in that third year.”
The light is finally starting to shine bright on McCullough, who ironically got his opportunity when Cooper broke a small fibula bone in his foot during pre-game warm ups at Georgia.
“Sam’s role was supposed to be really big in that game,” McCullough said. “The coaches were telling me I had to step up and my teammates were telling me to step up. Knowing how important his role was, it made me play with a little more something in the way I was playing.
“I had to play relentless. I had to block that way and that is what I did. I made a couple of clean blocks like Sam would.”
McCullough was physical. In fact, Morris said the Fort Mill product was the only tight end that played physical and because of that he earned a lot of respect and trust from the coaching staff.
“He is not a great player, yet, but he has the talent,” Swinney said. “It is really good to see him have some success and be rewarded for his hard work. His confidence is growing.
“I thought he played well in the Georgia game. He did not show up in the stat line, but he really played well for us. He was a bright spot in that game from a physical standpoint and we need him to continue to grow in that area.”
For McCullough he says it all comes down to one thing, paying attention to the guy in front of you.
“I’m more athletic than Sam and people might say I’m more talented, but the thing about Sam is that he is really smart. He is technically sound. The way he blocks, he does it so well.
“His steps are almost perfect. He steps the way he was coached to do it. He runs the routes the way he is supposed to do it. I run my routes faster, but he hits the right landmark and he plays smart.
“It is like a dramatic change. It’s not like I was not trying to learn what the coaches were teaching me, but I just did not understand it at first. But now I’m playing more comfortable and I know what I’m doing. I’m playing faster. When you know what you are doing, you can play faster.
“I’m not quite there yet, but I’m on my way.”