A 2005 enrollee out of Chesapeake (VA) Atlantic Shores Christian School, Jeraill McCuller has certainly come a long way on and off the field.
He originally signed with NC State after considering offers from East Carolina, Maryland, Michigan State, South Carolina, and West Virginia but was rated just a two-star prospect and labeled a "sleeper."
McCuller enters his redshirt senior year as a three-year starter at right tackle. He started all 12 games in 2008, allowed just two sacks from his right tackle position, and played 795 offensive snaps, the most on the team. He attributes his success to improvements made to his mammoth frame.
"When I got here I was 6'8 and 365 pounds," said McCuller. "Now I'm sitting at 6'8 and 325 pounds. I don't know if I've slimmed down, but I'm more tone now."
He has made strides physically working with Wolfpack Strength and Conditioning Coach Todd Rice.
"Coach Rice is very demanding," said McCuller. "He demands greatness. He expects guys to come in, be on time, and work hard. He expects you to come in and pay attention to details. It's a very detailed strength and conditioning program and a good one at that.
"We just come in and work hard everyday. There aren't any special tricks. Coach Rice wants you to work hard and you'll see the results when it's time to test."
"One of the main things he works with us on is flexibility," added McCuller. "If coach Rice feels like a guy isn't flexible enough to do squats he'll have them on a bear squat machine. If they can't power clean he may have them doing push press. He definitely works with you, but he expects you to come in extra and work diligently to pass the flexibility tests."
Considered extremely raw when he enrolled, McCuller has developed into a technical and fundamentally sound blocker under the coaching of offensive line coach Don Horton. The Wolfpack assistant has put several offensive linemen in the NFL, and prior to the 2007 season he was named the second-best offensive line coach in the country by ESPN's Todd McShay.
"To the public, coach Horton is quiet, but we know he is a live wire," McCuller stated. "If you mess up one time too many he's in you real good. He doesn't play around. I've got a verbal earful plenty of times.
"He's a great coach. I've learned a lot since coach Horton has been here... on technique alone and how to carry myself. When he got here I was a little playful. He would take me to the side and say, 'Hey Mac you need to straighten up a little bit.' Eventually I started buying into what he was saying because I wanted to make my coach happy. I eventually gained the respect of the people in this building."
That respect was earned and it came after an incident that some players might not bounce back from. McCuller was charged with driving while impaired, speeding and reckless driving in the summer of 2007. 19 years old and just a rising sophomore at the time, McCuller was coming off a spring practice where he had earned the starting job at right tackle.
"I think he's a kid who needs supervision," head coach Tom O'Brien stated at the time of the incident. "He needs discipline, he needs direction right now in his life and the best thing we can do is be a part of his family and help him through his situation right now."
McCuller ended up serving a multiple-game suspension, but he accepted his punishment and worked hard to get back on the field. By the time the season was over, he was the starter at right tackle, a position he has held ever since.
Watch McCuller on the field and you notice his intensity... the passion he plays with. He wants to win more than anything and has developed into one of the team's leaders. Recently he was named team captain with tailback Jamelle Eugene and Willie Young, an honor that McCuller is extremely proud of.
"It was a honor and a privilege... being named captain," said McCuller. "It's a blessing from God to be honest with you. I still find it hard to put into words.
"I think that throughout everything that has happened my team has always believed in me. I tell guys now that I think the worst thing a player can do is lose the respect of his teammates, and I'm thankful I haven't done that. I'm thankful they believe in me enough to put me up there and label me a team captain. It's a honor."
The leader of the offensive line, McCuller is pleased with the progress his group has made thus far this fall.
"From the first day we put pads on until now, I really can't put it into words," he said. "Guys are flying around... guys are just working hard. That's the main thing coach Horton demands. If you work hard you can work on everything else. Technique is coming along... we're looking good going into the season.
"Julian Williams is doing a great job... Jake [Vermiglio]. Teddy [Larsen] is looking amazing out there. Andy Barbee has been a bright spot. Barbee plays right beside me and we now are developing a system where we don't have to speak to each other because we know what we need to do. That's a positive because you don't want to be yelling out the calls in the game and the guy across from you knows what you're going to do."
The line also benefits from the competition it receives each practice. NC State's starting defensive line returns four seniors and might be, overall, the Wolfpack's top returning unit.
"I say everyday that I love practice because I'm so confident in my teammates that I know when I'm competing against them they'll prepare me to go out on gameday and have a good showing," McCuller said. "Guys like Alan-Michael Cash, Willie Young, Shea [McKeen], LeRoy [Burgess]... just to go against that defensive line is preparing you for game experience. You're going out there competing against the best."
Overall the entire offense seems confident. At the recent ACC Kickoff Jamelle Eugene talked about how they felt late in 2008 that they could score on every possession and the numbers back up the success NC State had late in the year.
The Wolfpack averaged 278 yards and 16 points per game in the first six FBS games of the year. Over the final six (including the bowl loss to Rutgers), NC State amassed 381 yards per game while scoring 29 points per contest, a difference of over 100 yards and 13 points per game.
Returning with Eugene is star quarterback Russell Wilson, four offensive linemen who have started double-digit games, all of the wide receivers, and talented tight end George Bryan while adding potential impact players like Mario Carter, Toney Baker, Donald Bowens, and R.J. Mattes among others.
"With a guy like Russell Wilson back there, the main thing is to keep your head on a swivel and try and lay somebody out anytime you see an opposite jersey," said McCuller. "We've got Jamelle, we've got Toney... we just have athletes.
"Receivers are loaded... anytime we're on the field we look at it like the line is going to do it's job, the quarterback is going to do his job, the receivers are going to do their job, the running backs are going to do their job, and we're going to put points on the board... nothing less."