McCullough’s return from an ankle injury boosts an already humming Sooners defense and could be the perfect moment to find his footing in Brent Venables’ system.
NORMAN — Dasan McCullough’s Saturday in Cincinnati began with his first snaps since Oklahoma’s opener.
It played out with friends and family from across Ohio in the stands. They watched inside Nippert Stadium as the transfer linebacker notched seven tackles in his first significant action in a Sooners uniform.
It ended for McCullough with a 20-6 victory and an ill-fated swig from a can of Skyline chili, a coveted regional specialty, alongside fellow defender Jonah Laulu.
“We took it, drank it, and then the video cut off right before we had to spit all that out,” McCullough said.
It was a nasty sip, even for a native Ohioan with an affinity for the locally celebrated chili.
As for the taste left in McCullough’s mouth after he resurfaced from a two-game absence to make his first OU start in Week 4?
“It was great to be back and get the rust off a little bit,” he said. “I’m ready to get on to the rest of the season.”
McCullough’s return from the ankle sprain that limited him to two snaps across nonconference play signals a boost to an already humming Sooners defense that faces Iowa State at home Saturday (6 p.m., FS1).
It could be just the right moment for the versatile linebacker to find his footing in Brent Venables’ defense.
McCullough offers speed, size and playmaking the Sooners have been missing. His value is amplified by the continued absence of fellow hybrid linebacker-safety linebacker Justin Harrington.
And with the Indiana transfer playing alongside the surging tandem of Danny Stutsman and Jaren Kanak, OU has a potentially eye-catching, offense-disrupting trio to throw at Iowa State, with Texas seven days later.
“It’s good to have Dasan back, man,” said safety Key Lawrence. “That guy’s a beast.”
Considered the crown jewel of the Sooners’ offseason transfer class, McCullough’s OU debut in the Sept. 2 win over Arkansas State lasted all of two plays.
The ankle injury kept him out of the SMU and Tulsa games before McCullough returned to the lineup and cheetah role at Cincinnati.
He played 49 of 78 defensive snaps. His seven tackles (0.5 tackles for loss) tied Kanak for second on the team behind Stutsman’s 13. Pro Football Focus credited McCullough with only one missed tackle.
“He’ll be the first one to tell you he’s kind of getting back into the rhythm of what that looks like and what that process is,” Venables said Tuesday. “But he did a nice job and I expect him to make improvements each and every week that he plays.”
McCullough’s nine months with the Sooners have been defined by rapid progression.
He spent much of spring camp immersing himself in the play calls, schematics and mental demands of Venables’ defense. In preseason camp, the converted defensive end focused on sharpening his footwork and coverage skills.
It wasn’t until the fourth Saturday of the month that he got to operate in the cheetah role across 60 minutes.
“Obviously in the game, especially the Big 12 opener, it’s a little bit of a bigger stage (than practice),” McCullough said. “But it felt good though. I felt like I was made for that.”
Mistakes (and learning from them) will be a part of the process. Venables, who has forged a tight relationship with McCullough, let his new linebacker know about one in Cincinnati.
McCullough busted coverage on the screen pass that produced Chamon Metayer’s 35-yard, second-quarter reception, Cincinnati’s longest gain of the game. The video review that followed the play gave Venables a few extra seconds for an animated sideline conversation.
“I definitely heard it,” McCullough said. “I definitely got an earful for it.”
“Obviously with a great coach like that, he just wants to get me right, get my head back right. Kind of next-play mentality. Forget about that play because he knows I can be hard on myself about things like that.”
Three plays later, Lawrence bailed him out with a soaring, goalline interception.
“He’s somebody that lifts me up all the time,” Lawrence said of McCullough. “In the middle of a play when I might be frustrated, he comes to me like, ‘You alright?’ And vice versa. It’s good to have him back.”