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Largo High School graduate Dexter McCluster is small but seeks to make a big NFL impact

Dexter McCluster catches a pass during Senior Bowl practice. He also ran the ball, took snaps and returned kicks.

Associated Press

Dexter McCluster catches a pass during Senior Bowl practice. He also ran the ball, took snaps and returned kicks.

MOBILE, Ala. — Ask Dexter McCluster which position he plans to play in the NFL, and he just shrugs.

"Offensive weapon," he said.

Leave it to the smallest player at the Senior Bowl to make the biggest impression.

McCluster, the 5-foot-8, 165-pound running back/receiver from Ole Miss and Largo High, made some money this week.

The first player in SEC history with 1,000 yards rushing and 500 receiving in a season was a standout in workouts preceding today's Senior Bowl. He played running back and slot receiver, took direct snaps in the wildcat and returned punts and kickoffs.

What's more, he did it all with game-breaking speed, quickness and explosiveness.

"I wanted to show my versatility," McCluster said. "I came in as a running back. They put me in at slot receiver. And I showed I can catch the ball, and I made things happen."

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said McCluster would be a good fit for teams that like to use multiple receiver formations.

"McCluster is the most dangerous player at the Senior Bowl," he said. "And his versatility … makes him invaluable to NFL teams that like to spread their offense."

Before this week, McCluster was projected as a fourth-round pick. But after displaying his vast array of playmaking skills, he could rise to the second. Many scouts see him playing a role similar to the Chargers' Darren Sproles and Eagles' DeSean Jackson, a wild card any team would love to have in its deck.

McCluster said the success of players such as Jackson and Sproles has made teams more open-minded when it comes to drafting a smaller player. Jackson weighed 165 pounds coming out of Cal and has scored 16 touchdowns in his two seasons.

"It just goes to show you if you're a football player and a playmaker, you make plays no matter what your size," McCluster said. "They're showing it's not about the size. All that matters is, 'Are you a playmaker? Can you play football?' "

McCluster not only survived but thrived in the hard-nosed SEC. As a senior, he rushed for 1,169 yards and eight touchdowns, caught 44 passes for 520 yards and three touchdowns and even threw a touchdown. He had more than 25 touches in six of 13 games.

"I was tested by playing in the SEC, where they bring it every week," McCluster said. "Coming (to the Senior Bowl) and making plays just added to my confidence."

McCluster grew up a Bucs fan, idolizing another smallish running back, Warrick Dunn, who ran for 10,967 yards over 12 seasons. His off-field efforts affected McCluster as well. No wonder he was named to the all-SEC community service team.

"Growing up, I always felt I wanted to help someone else before I helped myself," McCluster said. "Sometimes, I have to learn to say no. But I do a lot of work with churches and try to give back to the community to let them know I'm there for them spiritually, mentally and physically."

Forget McCluster's size. Nobody is looking down on him.

"I couldn't wait to come down here and watch him," ESPN draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "His toughness in the SEC at the tailback position blew me away; at 165 pounds. Then he comes out here at receiver … double moves, catches the ball, plucks it out of the air. He's an instant mismatch problem.

"I don't care what you do with him. Just put him on the field, and he'll make plays."


Senior Bowl

4 p.m. today; Mobile, Ala. TV: NFL Network

State players: Florida — WR Riley Cooper, QB Tim Tebow; FSU — CB Patrick Robinson, S Myron Rolle, LB Dekoda Watson; Miami — TE Jimmy Graham, LB Darryl Sharpton; USF — S Nate Allen, DE George Selvie

Largo High School graduate Dexter McCluster is small but seeks to make a big NFL impact 01/29/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 30, 2010 12:06am]
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