Bethune-Cookman LB: Love, talent still there

Division I-AA standout Ronnie McCullough remains close to his former USF teammates.

Published November 13, 2007

Ronnie McCullough left a piece of himself at USF.

When the Bulls surged to a No. 2 ranking last month, he was one of the few to tell the growing list of skeptics, "I told you so."

McCullough still wears a pair of Bulls black shorts on some practice days at Bethune-Cookman. He trades text messages with former Bulls teammate Mike Jenkins and remains close with former roommate Trae Williams.

When USF routed UCF for a 64-12 win Oct. 13, McCullough burned his bye week to be in the stands at Raymond James Stadium, where he cheered the Bulls in a white shirt from the USF student section.

"I'm a Tampa native," the former Hillsborough High star said. "I'm always rooting for the home team. I have a lot of friends and ex-roommates playing on that team. ... I was excited to see them at No. 2. I always knew that we had the talent to be ranked up there. They finally got the recognition they deserved."

Now McCullough is receiving some national recognition as he prepares for his final college game against rival Florida A&M in Saturday's Florida Classic. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker appeared in last week's Sports Illustrated as one of its Faces in the Crowd.

McCullough is the leading tackler in Division I-AA, averaging 15.2 per game with a career-high 23 tackles Nov. 3 in a 31-24 loss to Hampton.

"Obviously, it worked out for him and Bethune," Hillsborough High coach Earl Garcia said. "If he would have stayed at USF, he would have led the nation in tackles, too. None of this stuff surprises me. He's an absolute warrior. He was probably the best football player we had in my time here. If anyone has a chance at the NFL, it's Ronnie."

McCullough, named Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference defensive player of the week four times this season, most recently had 16 tackles in a win at Howard to help the Wildcats to 4-6 overall. The downside for McCullough has been the struggles of Bethune-Cookman.

"Honestly, it's kind of taken away from my personal performance," McCullough said of the Wildcats' losing season. "Of course, I'd rather win then have all the statistics. I can't really enjoy the full feeling. It's wonderful to be leading the nation in tackling, but I prefer to win."

McCullough chose the Bulls over programs such as Nebraska, Tennessee and Florida because USF's coaches showed him loyalty, recruiting him for four years even after he had a severe knee injury as a senior. When Pittsburgh pulled its scholarship offer, the Bulls pressed on. USF was in McCullough's back yard, and when his cousin, former Jefferson star Josh Balloon, decided to play for the Bulls, the decision to stay home was easy.

In 2005, he played in all 11 USF games and started twice at middle linebacker, notching 40 tackles to finish sixth for the Bulls.

McCullough and Balloon - dubbed Batman and Robin - transferred to Bethune-Cookman in 2006. McCullough said he wanted more playing time as a featured defensive player.

"My window was closing up," McCullough said of his final season at USF. "I wasn't going to have any more time to play. If anything, I was losing time. I wanted to go somewhere to showcase my talent."

McCullough has NFL aspirations, but he's not concerned of underexposure playing with the Wildcats. Scouts have taken note, watching video of his senior season, coach Alvin Wyatt said.

For one more game, McCullough is content being another face in the crowd.

"It's been everything I want," McCullough said of playing for the Wildcats. "A lot of people second-guessed me and why I would leave South Florida. I would never imagine being in Sports Illustrated and being the nation's leading tackler. It's a blessing."