Tennessee nose tackle Daniel McCullers has yet to play a down in the SEC, yet he already has several wins to his credit.
After being unable to qualify for a four-year college coming out of Southeast Raleigh (N.C.) High School, he has now been accepted to and enrolled in the University of Tennessee.
He weighed close to 400 pounds in junior college. Now he’s down to a slim-looking 6-foot-6, 362 pounds, well on his way to his goal of 350.
McCullers survived two years at Georgia Military College, a place where 12-hour days were the norm, the academics were tough and there wasn’t a uniform that truly fit him.
Win. Win. Win.
The fact that he will probably begin the season as the first-team nose tackle for the Vols is almost secondary at this point.
“I've been through a lot,” McCullers said in his first interview since enrolling over the summer. “I’ve just been working hard, just getting better each and every day. It's been a process, but I'm getting to used to it and I'm just ready to continue to get better.”
And he has improved already. He manned the scout team defensive line at the first practice open to the media. Now he’s been running with the first team. He’s likely to be there when the Vols announce their first official depth chart on Thursday.
He’s the first player members of the media watch. NFL scouts that drop by practice usually gravitate his way. Even former Tennessee head coach, and recent practice visitor, Johnny Majors did a double take when he saw him.
His teammates have noticed him too. Left tackle Tiny Richardson, who measures 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds, said there’s something a little different when he encounters McCullers in a collision.
“There’s just kind of this ‘boom’ sound,” said Richardson. “Nothing really moves. I think he’s going to have a good season.”
McCullers spoke about a sound as well. It’s the sound he hears when he drives opponents, who sometimes gives up 150 or more pounds to him, into the ground.
“I hear a noise when I tackle people,” McCullers said, trying to describe the unpleasant thud. “Every time I hit them, they'll fall and I'll hear the noise. They'll kind of start to run to the outside, they won't come right up the middle where I am.”
That’s a lesson opponents at Georgia Military College (GMC) learned over time. Opposing coaches left several pages out of their playbook when they played McCullers over the last two years.
“Teams didn’t run the inside zone (run) on us this year,” GMC head coach Bert Williams told Nooga.com in an interview in the spring. “They either ran into him or had to use two to block him and the linebacker was free.”
Don’t confuse big and intimidating with mean, though. McCullers is quite the opposite. He’s polite and soft-spoken. He begins answering almost every question with a “yes sir” or “no sir”.
He even will spare a running back on occasion. That is, if that running back is on his own team. Tennessee sophomore running back Devrin Young is extremely thankful for that. McCullers came through with a clean shot at him during the team’s first scrimmage on Aug. 10. He could have buried the 5-foot-8, 175-pound, Young, but he let up.
“I came free and I saw him running,” said McCullers. “I slowed down. He's a little guy and I didn't want to hurt him. That's my teammate, so I slowed up.”
He later clarified that he would have taken a true opposing running back down, regardless of the size difference.
McCullers, who has two years of eligibility for the Vols, is aware of the somewhat dirty job in front of him. The Vols didn’t bring him to Knoxville to wrack up tackles and sacks. His job is to occupy blockers and space, and free up the likes of linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt to make the highlight-reel plays.
He doesn’t seem bothered by that. After all he’s been through to get where he is now, stats are about the last thing on his mind. And with all his wins off the field, he knows that if he does his role well this fall, that might lead to some victories on the field, too.
“Playing nose tackle is tough,” he said. “Taking up blocks, getting double- and triple-teamed pretty much every play to free up linebackers. But I like doing that. It's a challenge. I'm good with that — as long as we win.”