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McCullers to nose tackle, Couch to end
By Evan Woodbery
ELIZABETHTON — Tennessee's 360-pound immovable object could be lining up smack-dab over center when the Vols play their first snap on defense this season.
Junior college transfer Daniel McCullers — dubbed "Shade Tree" or "Green Mile" or any number of other nicknames befitting a man of his size — has climbed the depth chart at nose tackle after the Vols' first scrimmage.
Junior lineman Maurice Couch said Monday that he had been moved from nose to end, with McCullers taking over his spot in the middle. Another juco player, Darrington Sentimore, is currently on the first team at the other end. Senior Daniel Hood is back inside at second-team nose tackle after working on the outside for much of camp.
The moves may be temporary, as coaches continue to search for the right combination in new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri's 3-4 scheme. But the shuffling offers a window on the coaches' thinking with about three weeks left until kickoff.
"This is a week where we can move guys around, for a lot of reasons — either evaluation purposes or contingency plans," said Tennessee coach Derek Dooley.
The moves came as the Vols practiced for the first time at Milligan College, a small Christian liberal arts school in northeastern Tennessee. UT has been staying at Milligan since Thursday night, but weather and logistics moved the first two practices down the road to Johnson City.
"It's been an awesome experience," Dooley said.
Assembling the defensive line has proven to be one of the most vexing questions of camp, and
first-year line coach John Palermo has pushed the juco newcomers hard.
Sentimore, who started his career at Alabama before leaving for junior college, quickly grabbed a first-team spot. But McCullers, because of his girth, has had to overcome doubts about his conditioning. The 6-foot-7 giant weighed as much as 380 in the spring, but has cut down to the neighborhood of 360. He carries the weight well, and certainly doesn't look fat. (Not that anyone would suggest otherwise to his face).
While McCullers is scheduled to meet with reporters for the first time later this week, teammates say he doesn't say much.
"He's a quiet guy, but he's coming out of his shell," Couch said. "I had the same issues when I first came here as well."
Couch has taken McCullers under his wing because of their similar juco backgrounds. Couch said he felt lost early in the 2011 season before finally becoming comfortable, and he wants McCullers to avoid that tough transition.
"It took me five games before I finally got in a groove," Couch said.
Now Couch could be learning a new position. Listed at 6-2 and 300 pounds, Couch has the body to be nose guard, but Dooley said he's "flexible" enough to play end.
"I had a lot of mistakes (on the first day), but there were some good things that I did," Couch said. "I'm going to learn from my mistakes."
The biggest change, Couch said, is that ends have to make more decisions. In the middle, offensive linemen come "crashing down on you" the instant the ball is snapped.
"At end, it feels awkward, because you have a lot of freedom," he said.
A three-man line made up of Couch, McCullers and Sentimore would weigh an average of 315 pounds, more if you use McCuller's official listed weight of 377.
"Coach thinks us three have done a real good job of defending the run, so he pretty much put three big bodies up front," Couch said.
Is bigger better, or is this just another of many changes still to come before Tennessee kicks off in Atlanta on Aug. 31?
"Our first priority is to defend the run," Couch said.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.