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In 'The Lab' with Notre Dame's Deland McCullough's unique running back drills

A former NFL player and assistant, McCullough is putting his stamp on the Irish backs

The soccer ball was not an equipment mishap.

It was in the running backs drill by design.

Deland McCullough had introduced it on the LaBar Football Practice Fields at Notre Dame.

So, one by one, the Fighting Irish running backs chopped their feet left, right, left, right and fielded soccer balls rolled at varying speeds toward their feet.

Like Ron Washington working infield drills with the Atlanta Braves.

No madness; just method.

“The soccer balls, I got that actually from when I played in the NFL,” said McCullough, Notre Dame’s first-year running backs coach, a former Super Bowl-winning assistant with the Kansas City Chiefs and widely regarded as one of college football’s ascending coaching stars. “I’ll pull the soccer balls out once or twice a year, just like when I’m in the beginning stages of working the shuffle of pass-protection.”

Ever in ‘The Lab’ conjuring new drills to maximize his charges’ skills, McCullough lends insight into the “soccer-ball” method.

“It’s something I like to do, it’s a little change-up,” McCullough told reporters. “Because you always tell the guys that they’re going through the motion and they’re like ‘What are we doing?’ And I say ‘Remove the soccer ball. What are your hands doing?’

“Because I’ve tricked them into what my hands would do in pass protection. I would shoot my hands up, my thumbs would be up, my palms would be both facing towards each other. There you go. It’s just ways, mind-tapping the guys to have a crossover-skill.”

Wednesday, 17 days before the No. 5 Irish visit No. 2 Ohio State in the official onset of Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman era and one of the sport’s most-anticipated matchups of the year, McCullough unleashes a new gauntlet; it’s a jump-cut drill, in which he is immersed, and, to his knowledge, it’s a unique creation.

“I’ve never seen the jump-cut drill,” McCullough said. “I started doing that several years ago. Just from a standpoint of ‘What do I want to see guys do?’

“I’ve never seen it.”

There are myriad other sessions – a boxing glove affixed to a pole, with McCullough adamant he can force a fumble; ditto on tandem strip drills – all with a singular purpose.

“I’m challenging them daily, but it’s in a positive way,” he says. “I’m challenging them as a man and I’m challenging them as a football player. The guys like that, they embrace that. They know just as quick as I’ll tell them great job, I’ll tell them ‘Hey man, that’s not going to get it done.’

“Understanding what those guys’ overall goals are and what our goals are in the room and those guys want to lead the team and be somebody the team can count on. I want these guys to exude confidence and play at a high level and so far that’s what we’ve been doing.”