Deland McCullough II has seen his fair share of D-I talent up close, but this season, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound sophomore defensive back has been thrown into the mix of the meat market blender at Serra High School.
McCullough, the son of USC running back’s coach Deland McCullough, is a far cry from Bloomington (Ind.) North High School. While McCullough acclimates to Los Angeles, he is also acclimating to life in the high school football fast lane at Serra.
“I’ve never been on a team like this that is just stacked with talent,” said McCullough. “In Indiana, at this time of the year, we weren’t doing anything. I sure wasn’t going against four-star and five-star level athletes.
“Our passing tournament this week was the first time I’ve gone against anybody that good. But going against guys like Jalen Hall, I handled my business. I learned some things and we watched film to see what I could have done better.”
“Bryan and Max have already told me games here are just different,” said McCullough. “The games will be intense, and at Indiana, there wasn’t a stage like that.
“I’m ready to take it on. There’s no doubt and at this point, I’m already practicing with the first team at nickel just learning the playbook. I’m glad I still have two years left. I’m on the bigger side for kids my age and I’m a longer built defensive back, which is an advantage.”
USC has often be said to recruit itself, and at the prep level, Serra High School has its own inherent attraction to talent.
Having produced so many D-I athletes over the past decade, McCullough chose football over convenience and luxury.
“It came down to Redondo Union and Serra,” said McCullough. “I live close to Redondo and it’s like a small college campus. It’s big and super nice.
“That’s what I fell in love with at first, but then my dad brought up the football side of things. When you walk in the door, Serra is smaller and doesn’t have those same type of facilities, but they have a great football tradition.
“You have to think football-wise because football is what I want to do. Serra has the best history of producing athletes and setting you up for the next level. Both athletically and academically Serra puts guys in a position to succeed at the next level.”
In youth football, McCullough played running back. With his father coaching the position and having played the position in college, the NFL and Canada, it was an obvious choice. But over the past two years, Deland Jr. has gravitated toward playing defensive back.
“When I started high school, I was completely focused on playing DB,” said McCullough. “Then a week before our first game, something happened to our starting wide receiver, so I had to fill in for him.
“I ended up playing wide out my freshman and sophomore seasons. I only played DB every once in a while — usually when we had a match up problem. So I’m still kind of learning defensive back.
“I can play man-to-man, but I like zone because of the reading and reacting,” continued McCullough. “I’m good with man because I’m super physical and I can come down and make tackles, but I think I’m best reacting to the ball in space.
“For me, man-to-man is what I’m trying to get better at. Zone is all flow pedal, read, read, read and then open up if I need to go get the ball.
“Offensively, I was a returner, so I have good agility and I can change direction well. I actually returned some kicks for the first time in practice at Serra this week and shows everyone that I’m shifty.”
At this point, McCullough has yet to hear from any D-I schools directly. But with his father coaching at USC, he has a unique resource experienced in the recruiting process.
As dozens of college coaches descend on Serra for May Evaluations, McCullough is waiting patiently for his turn.
“You hear guys talking about the different coaches on campus, but no one hypes it up around here,” said McCullough. “It’s just business. It’s not that new to them.
“They handle it the same way I would. There are some schools I would like to visit at some point. Obviously, I’ve been up to USC a few times because it’s only like 30 minutes away.
“Duke is a school I like. Arizona, Arizona State and of course the Indiana Hoosiers would be in there too. If I have those options, academics will be the No. 1 thing I look at. I want to major in nutrition.
“In terms of the environment, I really don’t know. Like the weather here in California is so nice. I hear it doesn’t really get cold like it does in Indiana. There could be other things like that I need to consider.
“But like I said, haven’t heard from any colleges yet, so I’m not too focused on that right now.”
The caveat for McCullough is that he can go to USC for free. The private university offers free tuition to the children of all of its full-time employees. Thus, USC will be an option for McCullough regardless.
“USC is really nice and everyone around there is really nice,” said McCullough. “The players are friendly and the training they get is a great set up. The campus is small, but it’s in this big city. It’s just really nice all-around.”
Watching USC prepare for this season, McCullough is getting a preview of D-I football at its highest levels.
"They work really hard and there’s just a different level of athleticism here in California,” said McCullough. “The athletes are quick, they know their stuff and the preparation they put in is just crazy.
“I see how much it means to guys out here at USC. They want to keep that reputation of being one of the best programs in the country. They want to go into the season and destroy it. They want to be No. 1.”
Stay tuned to USCFootball.com for more USC recruiting updates from the May Evaluation Period.