The evolution of Daniel McCullers from hulking, run-stuffing lineman to nimble, every-down pass-rusher is slowly transforming Tennessee's defensive line.
McCullers, a 6-foot-8, 360-pound nose guard, started this season with one instruction: Take up blocks and get in the way. Now the junior-college transfer is playing more snaps, even in passing situations in which he would normally return to the bench.
McCullers played his most snaps of the season last week against Georgia and registered a career-high eight tackles. He had four in his first four games, some of which he played in only sparingly.
"He's improving every week," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said Monday.
McCullers may not play every snap when the Vols (3-2, 0-2 SEC) play at No. 19 Mississippi State (5-0, 2-0) on Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 9 p.m.), but he's much closer to his goal of being an every-down lineman than he was when the season began.
"Our challenge now is to see how much we can play him before he hits a dip," Dooley said. "He's a good football player. We need to keep amping up his plays each week no matter what the offense does."
In the past, when an offense like Akron would pass nearly every down, it meant McCullers could essentially take the Saturday off. Georgia's pro set offered a better matchup for McCullers, but he still played even in nickel defenses when the Bulldogs were likely to pass.
"He brings a different kind of pass rush because he can push the pocket, which is just as effective sometimes," Dooley said. "It's not like we have any sack-masters up there. We're not taking any pass-rush specialists out of the game if we put him in."
A North Carolina native who spent two years at Georgia Military Institute before coming to Tennessee, McCullers had the size that made him impossible for recruiters to overlook. That same girth has made him a center of attention at Tennessee. He was the subject of a feature on the USA Today sports section after playing in only two college games.
But for all the acclaim, there also has been skepticism. Was McCullers too raw to make an immediate impact in the SEC? Saturday's performance against Georgia seemed to say no.
"At first they didn't want me on nickel, and now they do," McCullers said simply. "I have to get off the ball a lot faster than I do. I have to learn moves. I usually just bull-rush. That works most of the time, but now I have to learn a lot of technique."
How's he doing? After daily work with line coach John Palermo, McCullers is coming along.
"I am getting adjusted to it really well, learning the scheme, the right gap technique," he said. "I'm continuing to get better."
No one expects McCullers to be leading the league in sacks anytime soon. But in addition to his ability to "push the pocket," McCullers' tall frame and long arms can disrupt a quarterback trying to throw.
"I've been a good tip-ball person," McCullers said. "That can help the pass rush: Just get my arms up and affecting the quarterback's vision. That's a good thing to do."
That USA Today feature story on McCullers closed with a quote from Dooley: "We're in the first quarter of a long journey for him."
With another week of solid play under his belt, McCullers' journey may be getting closer to the finish line.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.