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November 12, 2011

Important finale for Cullen

This story starts with a dog named Bruin. Perhaps it ends Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium, perhaps not. When the surprisingly first-place UCLA Bruins come to town to take on John Cullen's Utah Utes Saturday and the Utes win, we'll know if the story ends there.

Cullen's childhood home, La Mirada (Calif.), is just 31 miles away from UCLA. That fact had a young Cullen idolizing Bruin players and following the team his entire life.

So much so that all he wanted to do was play his college football in the historic Rose Bowl, wearing the baby blue and gold of UCLA. So much so that he named his dog Bruin.

Growing up basically in the shadows of both USC and UCLA, with USC about ten miles nearer, Cullen seemed to be the go-to target for interviews just prior to the USC game. The Trojans are part of the story, but are late arrivals to it, as USC inserted itself into the story very late in Cullen's recruiting process.

Prior to the Trojans' interest, Cullen had whittled it down to two schools: Oklahoma and Utah. With the hometown Trojans showing interest, Cullen's tune changed.

Come national signing day, it came down to USC and Utah for Cullen; both great prospects offering great potential. Yet, neither school was Cullen's first choice.

"UCLA. There's no secret, it was my dream school," Cullen confided. "Growing up, they were pretty much my team. I was all about them. I loved them."

Cullen had a total of 16 scholarship offers in hand from the SEC, Big East, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12, MWC and WAC conferences. Cullen's collegiate choices came from most of the nation's major conferences, which can sometimes equate to offers from lower to middle-of-the-packers.

Not so in this case.

The likes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Auburn all offered Cullen. In any case, Cullen would likely hold a National Championship ring had he chosen any of the three schools; he'd already have a ring as an Auburn Tiger and could have a shot at one this season with either Oklahoma State or with Oklahoma, ranked second and sixth in the BCS Rankings, respectively.

Cullen took his five allotted official recruiting trips to Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arizona State, Kansas and Utah. Additionally, Florida and South Carolina showed heavy interest, but did not formally offer Cullen.

For all of that, the one school conspicuously missing from that list? UCLA. At one point, Cullen thought the Bruins were on that list, making his choice a no-brainer.

"They looked at me and gave me a shot. I thought I had [the offer]," Cullen recalled of the recruiting situation with UCLA. "When it came right down to it, I was apparently not the caliber of football player they were looking for at that university. That's what I was told in my last conversation with them."

Many, especially those at Utah, disagree.

"He's a superb athlete. John has a lot of really good things about him. I think he really understands football, but his best quality, probably is his athleticism," offensive line coach Tim Davis said. "I think he'll go far, because he has all the tools. He can always learn or improve technique and some of those kinds of things. You can coach that, but you can't coach size, strength, athleticism and instinct. God has given him those things, so he can go far if he wants to do that."

Right tackle and fellow senior Tony Bergstrom also praised Cullen's natural athletic ability.

"He's just an athlete. He can move, he's well-balanced," Bergstrom observed. "You just have to have certain physical things to play offensive line, and he has all of them. Sometimes you have a guy that has them, but isn't athletic enough to fully utilize them. John doesn't have that problem, because his best thing is probably his athleticism."

Drawing praise from coaches and teammates alike is something that Cullen has earned in spades and something that has become a regular occurrence, but his arrival wasn't all red carpets and roses.

"When I first got here some of the guys kind of gave me a hard time. They kind of just wanted to send the message that I was at Utah, and I had to become a part of them, not the other way around or be an individual or whatever," Cullen said of his early days at Utah.

Veterans Caleb Schlauderaff and Zane Taylor were both highly appraised offensive linemen, both in their senior seasons when Cullen arrived. Schlauderaff in particular took it upon himself to make sure Cullen knew his place in the pecking order, despite his no. 1 JUCO offensive lineman ratings and number of stars by his name.

Center Tevita Stevens and Bergstrom confirm the days of tough love for the newly-arrived Cullen.

"It wasn't something we decided had to happen, it was more of a reaction to him. He got here, and we were like, we've got to take this guy down a couple of notches," Bergstrom recalled. "Then we did, and he climbed right back up those notches. The main thing, where the unity comes from though, is how he handled all of that, and just kind of went with it. If he hadn't handled it so well, it could have been a different thing."

Despite some early lines drawn in the sand, the unit consisting of Cullen, Schlauderaff, Taylor, Stevens and Bergstrom came together and developed into one of the most formidable lines in the West, and certainly in the Mountain West Conference.

Everyone involved credits Cullen for the way he handled himself during the transition, enabling the line to gel and come together the way it did.

"We definitely let him know that you know, it's up to you to become part of us, not the other way around and some were more vocal about that than others. But John took it and understood it and that the O-line has to have that chemistry and be as one," Stevens said. "So that took hanging out and becoming a unit, and he did everything he had to do to make it happen. So he did well with it and it happened, and that's a credit to him."

"You have guys that worked and been there and put in their time in the program, then have someone highly rated like John come in and jump ahead in the line. It could have been a problem, but it wasn't because of the way he handled it," Bergstrom expanded. "I can't remember another guy who has able to come in and play right off the bat like that, but he proved himself and through that process it became accepted."

Cullen's position coach Tim Davis talked extensively about Cullen's personality, and the importance of it in the process of becoming a part of the offensive line unit.

"John is very gregarious and has a lot of personality. I don't say that because it's a nice thing to add. I think that it was central to his fitting in here at Utah, with these guys," explained Davis. "It wasn't an easy thing to come in to a close program, especially on the offensive line where chemistry and unity are everything. He's great in meetings, he's vocal and he uses that personality. It's been his best tool. Things would be much quieter, maybe dull without him."

The temporary turmoil among the offensive line was something that could have been extremely damaging to the success of the team had it not been quickly resolved with the departure of an important piece in departed senior leader Zane Beadles.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham quantified the importance of Cullen's arrival and subsequent role on the team.

"We got to a place where we had to replace a guy like Zane [Beadles], and we needed someone to come in and contribute right away. Finding that piece, we felt, was critical to the short-term success of the program," Whittingham said. "We felt that John was someone who could do that for us, and he's come in, worked hard and filled that role for us. From a recruiting standpoint, John was an important get for us."

Not only has Cullen filled that role for the Utes, he has also emerged in his second and senior season, as a leader on the team.

"We needed him last year to fill that spot and he did that, but what we're seeing with John, this season, more so than last is his leadership. We've needed that this year," center Tevita Stevens said. "He's become really, a vocal leader on the line and on the offense. He's helping the younger guys along more and that's important. Helping to develop those younger guys is something we're expected to do in this program. Last year, I think he was trying to get the offense down and get comfortable himself, so he wasn't able to do it as much. But this year, he's doing all of it."

While there will be no National Championship for Cullen at Utah, his evolution and development are evident, especially to teammates, but Cullen insists he made the right decision to come to Utah.

"Absolutely. No regrets about any of it," Cullen said decisively. "I feel like I'm in the right place. I've been able to grow here and get better. I couldn't be with a better bunch of guys and we're in the trenches together battling. You couldn't ask for more than that."

Many of Cullen's trench-mates have been mentioned, but two that have not, played pivotal roles in getting him to Utah.

Junior offensive lineman Sam Brenner and quarterback Jordan Wynn, both teammates at Oceanside High School (Calif.) knew Cullen from various football camps that dotted Southern California. Cullen acknowledged the relationships he had with Brenner and Wynn both played into his commitment to Utah.

"Definitely knowing those guys affected my decision. They were guys I knew from going to camps and stuff, and Sam especially, being on the offensive line was someone I knew pretty well," Cullen said. "Jordan kept texting me and telling me I had to get up here and stuff, so that was part of it."

Another part of Cullen's decision had to do with comfort with the coaches and the program and with the depth chart. Coming in as a junior and a goal to play at the next level, immediate playing time was crucial.

"I had looked at some other programs that I really liked, but when we looked at the depth chart, there wasn't a better opportunity for immediate playing time than at Utah," Cullen said.

Now, most of the way through his senior season, Cullen has started every game he was physically capable of starting, losing two starts early this season to injury. The season most of the Utes envisioned for themselves in their first season as Pac-12 members hasn't come to fruition, but there is much left to salvage.

Bowl games are still on the line, and the Utes want the best possible bowl against the best possible opponent in order to regain some lost national credibility and positive momentum going into next season.

An extremely proud program, would like nothing more than to foil a first place bid for any conference foe, UCLA or otherwise.

A fiery and natural competitor, Cullen's sights are no different. That it is UCLA, and that Utah is in position to spoil the Bruins' season is a fact not lost on Cullen, given the slight from UCLA just under two years ago.

"It still stings. It's something, from your dream school that just kind of sticks with you," Cullen admitted. "So it's just a little extra motivation for me, and a little extra motivation never hurt anyone. This one will mean a little more for me, and I'll have a little extra juice out there."

If all turns out for the Utes and therefore, for Cullen, perhaps his story will end here, today.


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