Kansas City, Mo. — Dexter McCluster is back where he feels most comfortable.
That should make opposing defenses decidedly uncomfortable.
The 5-foot-8, 170-pound self-described “jitterbug” played mostly running back growing up, but he moved into a slot receiver role while becoming a multi-purpose star at Mississippi. When he was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the second round of the 2010 draft, the idea was to use him a similar fashion, putting him in the backfield and at times splitting him out wide.
Instead, McCluster wound up playing primarily receiver, starting seven games and catching 21 passes for 209 yards and a score last year. Sure, he also ran 18 times, but it was clear that coach Todd Haley had decided he would use McCluster to help quarterback Matt Cassel in the passing game.
That appears to have changed in training camp.
McCluster has been practicing mostly out of the backfield, and not just on toss sweeps that allow him to use his speed and shiftiness. He also took a couple of handoffs right up the middle during 11-on-11 drills Monday, breaking one of them into the secondary for a long gain.
“They’re really putting me in position where I can use what I have, and I’m just thankful for that,” McCluster said. “Whatever my role is going to be, I’m just going to do it.”
Haley seems to smile every time someone brings up McCluster’s name, and it’s clear that the third-year head coach is enamored by the different roles McCluster can play. That includes special teams, where the sparkplug averaged better than 15 yards on punt returns in 2010.
“There’s a clear-cut vision for him right now, with the variables that we have,” Haley said. “Again, he’s a guy we knew he had versatility to do both — he did both in college, he was very productive in both.
“I liked some of the things you were seeing the other night,” Haley added, referring to McCluster’s performance against the Baltimore Ravens. He ran four times for 24 yards and caught three passes for 47 yards in just about as good an all-around performance as you’ll see in the preseason.
The biggest knock on McCluster is that, given his diminutive stature, he might not be able to pick up a blitzing linebacker or help double-team a defensive end in pass protection.
That would limit the different packages in which Haley could utilize his talents.
McCluster has no such concerns, though he acknowledges pass blocking is a work in progress.
“I have no choice but to be comfortable with it,” he said. “Everybody can see I’m not the biggest running back out there, not the biggest guy, but my competitiveness is not going to let me shy away from the pass protection. I’m learning it. Jamaal (Charles) is helping me with it, I’m picking it up.”
Besides his ability to block, the other big question that surrounds McCluster is where he will get his touches. Haley said he’d like to see him with the ball in his hands about 10 times per game, probably split between catching passes and designed running plays.
But the Chiefs have a loaded backfield with Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles (1,467 yards, five touchdowns in 2010), veteran running back Thomas Jones (896 yards, six TDs) and recently signed fullback Le’Ron McClain, a former All-Pro with the Baltimore Ravens who is primarily a blocking back but has also shown an ability to pound the ball between the tackles in short yardage situations.
“Everybody is going to play,” McCluster said, standing before his locker after practice, with Charles next to him and McClain seated in the next locker down. “Jamaal with the speed, Thomas with the power — throw a little jitterbug in there you never know what’s going to happen.”
That’s exactly what Haley wants.
“The guy can run the ball,” he said, again referring the Chiefs’ preseason game against the Ravens. “We’re still working hard on the protection, he had a couple minuses in that area, but from a standpoint of creating some matchup issues out of the backfield, I thought he did some exciting things.”