Dasan McCullough’s arrival as OU’s cheetah has been years in the making

Dasan McCullough’s arrival as OU’s cheetah has been years in the making

The Indiana University transfer and former Kansas City-area high school star could hold the keys to OU’s defensive turnaround. He resembles another of Brent Venables’ dynamic defenders.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Aug 31, 2023, 6:25pm CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Aug 31, 2023, 6:25pm CDT

NORMAN — A budding talent attracting attention around the Kansas City football scene in the fall of 2020 looked an awfully lot like another do-it-all defender from K.C.

Isaiah Simmons had been a two-way star at Olathe North (Kansas) High School. He’d go on to become a Butkus Award winner and a national champion at the center of Brent Venables’ 2016-19 Clemson defenses.

A four-star prospect who arrived in Simmons’ over at Blue Valley North was built the same way.

He had linebacker size, the speed and coverage skills of a defensive back and the length typical of an elite Division I pass rusher. 

All of that made comparisons between Simmons and Dasan McCullough easy. 

The resemblance is so strong that when McCullough’s college recruitment accelerated, one of McCullough’s coaches made a personal appeal to Simmons’ alma mater.

“I talked to Clemson when they were recruiting Dasan and told them this is a guy who could fit your defense in that same role as Isaiah Simmons,” said Samie Parker, a former area 7-on-7 coach now coaching wide receivers at North Alabama. “I knew he could project to be the same type of player that guy was. Maybe that’s what they talked about when coach Venables made the pitch to Dasan this year. 

“Exactly what we were visualizing back then? It’s happening now.”

McCullough steps into the heart of Venables’ Oklahoma defense Saturday against Arkansas State (11 a.m., Gaylord Family – Memorial Stadium, ESPN) as the headline offseason addition to a unit desperately needing improvement.

For the 6-foot-5, 227-pound McCullough, the role has been years in the making.

“What I was doing in high school is what I’m doing out here,”  said McCullough, a sophomore transfer from Indiana. “It’s just the college version of that mode.”

The cheetah position — a hybrid safety or SAM linebacker role OU fans saw Roy Williams define once upon a time — is a pillar in Venables’ setup. On a given play, the cheetah might function as a linebacker, a pass rusher or drop into coverage as a safety.

DaShaun White took 954 snaps in the role last fall. McCullough arrives as a truer fit. 

As in most places on the depth chart, OU returns better stocked at the cheetah spot from a year ago.  Fifth-year defender Justin Harrington will also compete for playing time.

That position has a very long job description,” said defensive coordinator Ted Roof. “You have to be multi-talented. You can’t be a one-dimensional linebacker to play there. (Dasan) and Justin have pushed each other this offseason and into fall camp.”

McCullough spent his early days in Norman unlearning much of what he picked up at Indiana, where he tallied four sacks and earned freshman All-America honors playing exclusively as a pass rusher. McCullough found himself backpedaling in coverage and digesting route combinations, flexing skills he last leaned on as a high school junior.

By spring game, McCullough said he felt embedded in the role. On the first play, he unleashed a booming hit on wide receiver Drake Stoops.

“I took a lot of extra time just getting my brain back in that mode,” McCullough said.

McCullough said he’s three times the player he was last season, energized by familiar movements and responsibilities.

As McCullough’s 7-on-7 coach, Parker was among the first to make use of his versatility.

McCullough played under Parker in the Kansas City-based Emp1re program alongside a dozen future Power 5 players, including Iowa’s Xavier Nwankpa, Missouri’s Mekhi Miller, Colorado’s Dylan Edwards and his younger brother, OU freshman Daeh McCullough. 

“Him being so versatile we were able to move him around,” Parker said. “We put him in positions to flourish and help us win games.”

At Blue Valley North, coach Andy Sims was used to having coaches’ sons on his team. Josh Pederson, son of former Chiefs offensive coordinator Super Bowl-winning head coach Doug Pederson, played tight end for the Mustangs. 

When Deland McCullough took a job with the Chiefs in 2018, Sims suddenly had his three sons in his program. Between older brother Deland II and younger brother Daeh, Dasan contributed to the kicking game and earned a varsity letter as a freshman on Blue Valley North’s state runner-up team. 

Sims then pitched McCullough on being the Swiss Army Knife in the middle of his defense. As he took off in the role, college programs took notice.

“If there were times where I wanted to get a unique pass rush I’d put him at defensive end,” Sims said. “There were times when we were running a 3-high high safety look similar to a look of the colleges right now — he’d play that. If I felt there was a taller receiver and it was a key passing situation, I put him out there on one of their receivers. And naturally he played safety and outside linebacker.”

Now McCullough is a focal point of an OU defense deeper on the defensive line and bolstered in the secondary. If the responsibility phases McCullough, it hasn’t shown.

“When I came here with Coach V this is what we talked about me doing,” McCullough said. “This is what I signed up for and I’m ready for it.”

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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