The Sultan Surprise

The scouts picked him apart, drawing harsh conclusions about his character. The scouting guides didn't hold back: Sultan McCullough had questionable character. He was profane. He was disrespectful. And undependable. And a negative leader. But he had the numbers, which is what the Redskins liked.

But he had the numbers, running the 100 meters in 10.17 seconds; finishing eighth on Southern Cal's alltime rushing list. And he also had people here who knew him, which mattered even more.

The truth, as usual, is hard to decipher. McCullough claims the scouting report was based on fiction. He points to his numbers as reality. Unfortunately, McCullough also knows that others have a different view of reality.

''Perception is reality,'' he said, ''and my perception was that I wasn't coachable and had a bad attitude. A lot of stuff was out there so a lot of teams didn't want to deal with that. A lot of people put bad knocks on me and that hurt me in the draft. I felt like I was as good as anyone in the draft.''

Regarldess, the Redskins provided him with something only one other team was willing to do: a chance. And McCullough capitalized, earning a roster spot and bumping Kenny Watson off the team.

The Redskins had said they'd like to keep four backs. It was always assumed Watson would be the fourth. But the more McCullough ran, the more they didn't want to let him go. He's one of the biggest surprises of the summer.

In the preseason opener against Carolina, McCullough rushed for 50 yards on nine carries. Against Baltimore, McCullough gained 38 yards on seven carries, scoring once on a 15-yard touchdown run. And he broke tackles en route to the end zone, something scouting services doubted he could do. He finished with a team-best 102 yards on 24 carries in the preseason.

''Sultan has caught everyone's attention,'' Redskins coach Steve Spurrier said last week. ''I've got a feeling if we have to release him, then he'll get picked up somewhere with the way he's flashed his speed and running ability.''

McCullough has impressed the Redskins with tough, hard runs in practice. Plus he runs with an attitude, one day stiff-arming Fred Smoot, drawing the cornerback's ire and leading to an exchange of words.

''Everyone else is surprised at the way he's performed, but I expect even bigger things from him,'' said Redskins offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who recruited McCullough at USC. ''He has that kind of ability. He's a kid that you have to stay after, but if you push him you get a prize.''

Jackson has stayed after McCullough, constantly reminding him to finish runs in practice. Or, occasionally, scolding him for not running back to the huddle. But Jackson's relationship with McCullough is the reason both wanted to be reunited. Not to mention this: McCullough ran for 1,163 yards as a sophomore with Jackson as his position coach.

It helps, too, that ex-Redskins running back Ricky Ervins--also a USC alum--lives in the area and acts as a mentor to McCullough.

''There were a lot of things about the kid that were put out there,'' Jackson said. ''But I don't get caught up in that. I know the family and the player. There were some things out there about his practice habits and that he might be high-maintenance. But I've never felt like that about him. He needs to be coached and that's what they pay me to do.''

But what happened last season, and in the draft, still stings McCullough. He'd rushed for 1,986 yards and was considered the fastest player ever at USC--he was the 100-meter Pac-10 champion in 1999.

That wasn't enough. Nor did it help that McCullough had played for four different offensive coordinators, three running back coaches and two head coaches. New coach Pete Carroll had not recruited him. But he had helped land transfer Justin Fargas. And, two games after rushing for 176 yards in a win over California, McCullough was benched for Fargas.

''The only person who had my back was my running backs coach,'' McCullough said. ''But a lot of people had different thoughts about me. Carroll recruited Fargas to take my job. I fought him off the best I could. No one took my job.''

McCullough carried the ball 62 times the rest of the season, including 12 carries for 76 yards in an Orange Bowl win over Iowa.

''That young man could have quit and I challenged him,'' USC running backs coach Kennedy Pola said. ''He doesn't know what quit is. It's people who don't know him who say those things. You look at the tapes after [his benching] and he still ran hard. He never complained.''

But the NFL wasn't impressed. Nor did they care that he had a good showing in an all-star game. At the scouting combine, McCullough had a nagging leg injury, causing him to run a slower time in the 40-yard dash.

Then there were the negative comments. McCullough wondered if his bad label stemmed from problems his older brother encountered. Saladin McCullough was the Pac-10's leading rusher in 1997 at Oregon. He later played briefly in the NFL and XFL. But Saladin also was accused of cheating on his SAT's, got in a fight in junior college and, before the '97 draft, got into a bar fight defending a friend. Charges were dropped on the latter fight, but the damage was done.

''Knowing I was his younger brother, it stuck with me,'' said McCullough, who has four other brothers. ''But a lot of people don't know me as a person. They didn't sit down and talk to me. Perception is reality: he's a knucklehead. They didn't know me.''

Pola, who coached him for two of his five years at USC, does. He talks with McCullough several times a week and constantly reminds him of former Denver running back Terrell Davis, who began his career as a nose guard at Long Beach State and eventually became a Pro Bowl running back with the Broncos.

''Sutlan was a reliable every day guy for me,'' Pola said. ''Thing is, Sultan is young. I rode him hard. I ripped him. He did everything I asked. He's not the most gracefully social guy and that rubs people the wrong way. But you drive him and you stay on him and that kid produces. I rode him hard. I ripped him. But that young man is respectful. I trust him with my home.''

Besides, Pola, and McCullough, remember what people said about the running back when he entered USC: he'd flunk out. Instead, McCullough is two classes shy of getting his degree in sociology.

But, for now, he's focused on football.

''This is a great chance,'' he said. ''I get an opportunity to forget about the past. I want to prove everyone wrong.''


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