KNOXVILLE – Weighing in at around 400 pounds while playing at Georgia Military College in 2011, defensive lineman Daniel McCullers was brought in by the former staff with the idea of plugging him in the middle as a 3-4 nose tackle.
The former junior college standout cut his weight down closer to 365 and fared well enough during his first year in Knoxville that he considered making the leap to the NFL.
“I looked at it a little bit,” McCullers said of his flirtation with the NFL draft. “Just knowing I needed a lot more work on getting in shape and work on my technique and helping get Tennessee back to the top.”
He decided to stay one more year despite the scheme transition to a 4-3 – a transition he says he is comfortable with overall. Defensive line coach Steve Stripling is glad he did.
“He’s the biggest man [I’ve coached],” Stripling said. “Everyday I see him, I say ‘wow, he’s big.”
One of the biggest tasks this spring is finding a place to plug McCullers, who has dropped down to 355 pounds – his lightest weight since early in high school – into the new scheme.
“Right now he’s playing our three technique which puts him on the outside shade of a guard,” Stripling said. “I think that’s a good spot for him. Obviously a big body who can control the B gap when you play a 4-3. He’s right in the middle of our defense.
“The three technique has to be able to hold a point. If the three technique gets washed down, then the C gap gets huge and we have no chance at defense. That spot is critical. If you go back to my last program, the best player was our three technique.”
McCullers had his opportunities to make plays in 2012, but he was more a complimentary player. Former defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri used him more as a cog who took up two or three blockers in an effort to free up other defenders. McCullers finished the season with a modest 39 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and one sack.
He’s hoping for a more aggressive use of the defensive front could lead to big results in 2013.
“It’s much more like penetration,” he said. “The 3-4 is just taking up blocks for the linebackers, but now we get a chance to make plays in the backfield.”
Added Stripling: “We’re not just eating up space, we’re making plays.”
Injury update: Redshirt freshman tight end Justin Meredith was in a non-contact jersey at Practice No. 3 on Thursday. Meredith redshirted in 2012 while dealing with a bad hamstring, but was thought to be completely healed heading into spring practice.
Stripling said that defensive tackle Maurice Couch (shoulder) will be held out of a majority of contact drills this spring. Sophomore safety Brian Randolph (ACL) was in a non-contact jersey.
Pads on for first time: Thursday was the first practice for the Vols in full pads after they were in shorts and helmets the first two sessions.
"We are out of shape; they have to get in better shape,” defensive coordinator John Jancek said. “But that doesn't happen overnight. We practice fast, it is a high tempo, they have pads on now so that restricts them. There is a lot of anxiety with the first day of pads and hitting, but they are out of shape right now."
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian had a similar diagnosis for his offense after seeing it move in full pads for the first day.
“The message is every day improvement,” he said. “Are we where we want to be yet? No, not at all. But are we better than we were after practice two.”
• Coach Butch Jones cranked up the competition in practice on Thursday. Offensive and defensive lineman went through some one-on-one blocking drills and receivers and defensive backs did the same. Coaches declared a winner in those drills and announced it over a microphone.
• In the receivers vs. defensive backs blocking drills, cornerback Eric Gordon had one of the best plays when he tossed receiver Drae Bowles aside easily. Receiver Vincent Dallas got the best of cornerback Naz Oliver, putting the senior on his back in one instance.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga