With 'Rocky Top' blaring, Tennessee practices for final time before opener
The last time Daniel McCullers played a real football game he estimated there were "maybe 20" people in the stands.
It'll be a little different scene Friday night in Atlanta.
The McCullers delegation alone will number close to 20, swallowed up in a capacity crowd of 71,000 at the Georgia Dome when Tennessee opens the 2012 season.
Most of the McCullers delegation will be coming into town on I-85 with all those North Carolina State fans.
"I'm getting very excited,'' McCullers said this week, "just thinking about being in front of that crowd, going against N.C. State from my hometown.''
The 7:30 p.m. kickoff in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game (TV: ESPNU) finds the Raleigh, N.C., product in a Tennessee uniform for his Division I debut.
The 6-foot-8, 360-pound nose tackle professes to have virtually no affinity with the school from his hometown.
"I liked the Tar Heels back when I was younger,'' he said.
That would be the North Carolina Tar Heels from just up the road in Chapel Hill. McCullers said he can recall attending only one N.C. State home game.
"My sophomore year of high school, they played ECU,'' he said. "That's it. I was closer to the Tar Heels.''
As a prospect — a large prospect — at Southeast Raleigh High School, McCullers fell behind the academic eight-ball early and never caught up. He liked Wake Forest but playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference wasn't an option.
McCullers said he heard from Livingston University in Alabama but was determined to play Division I football. That meant junior college.
"My coaches told me Georgia Military College wanted to talk to me,'' he said. "They came down and I signed a scholarship right on the spot.''
So McCullers passed the next two years off the radar, restoring his academic resume in Milledgeville, Ga.
That's where Tennessee found him. N.C. State noticed, too, McCullers said.
"They offered me,'' he said, "but they wanted me to play offensive line. That ain't my thing.
"Hitting people, hitting the quarterback, that's fun. That's what I like to do.''
Said N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien. "He wanted to play defense. He kind of told us to go take a hike.''
When he starts hitting the Wolfpack on Friday night, he won't find many old friends. The only N.C. State player he's ever been a teammate with is receiver Tobias Palmer from Georgia Military.
McCullers admitted there might be some nerves to work through on opening night. He expects to play in the neighborhood of 30 snaps.
By all accounts, he's made the most of his time since he arrived at Tennessee in May.
"He has shown improvement every day and I mean that,'' said coach Derek Dooley. "That's not just coach speak. He really has.
"Every day we say 'you've got to do better at this and you've got to do better at that,' and he's conscientious and he works at it.''
Daniel Hood, who will share reps at nose tackle, is glad to have McCullers in the mix.
"He's gotten a lot better,'' Hood said. "He's starting to learn the work ethic we work with here.
"He's still working on it but it's incredible to see how far he's come.''
He has come far — all the way from Raleigh.