Daniel McCullers growing in durability

Nose tackle starting to play more snaps

Tennessee Volunteers defensive lineman Daniel McCullers (98) reaches out to try and stop Georgia running back Todd Gurley (3) during the first half of their 51-44 loss to the Bulldogs Saturday, Sep. 29, 2012 at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.  (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Michael Patrick, copyright © 2012

Tennessee Volunteers defensive lineman Daniel McCullers (98) reaches out to try and stop Georgia running back Todd Gurley (3) during the first half of their 51-44 loss to the Bulldogs Saturday, Sep. 29, 2012 at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

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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.

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Comments » 14

BolivrBob writes:

Mount McCullers

eVOLved writes:

GBO!

wigmeister writes:

We were happy when you came to UT, and even happier now that you are here. Good luck the rest of the way!

mocsandvolsfan writes:

There's our one bright spot.hehe Go McCullers

jobrando#216494 writes:

Only hero to step forward on this team. NFL will love him.

RockyTopVolFan writes:

Keep on trucking Big Dan!

Go VOLS!

Olddogsrule writes:

Mount McCullers :) I like that! I like the attitude and work this young man is putting into learning the ins & outs of his position, get the gaps figured out an all. But frankly, for those lined up opposite of 6'8" and THREE HUNDRED AND SIXTY pounds of Mount McCullers when it is time to bull rush, well... I am soooo glad he's chosen to play for the Volunteers!

6972 writes:

in response to BolivrBob:

Mount McCullers

Mount McCullers. Love that. Instead of playing a 3-4 defense, with his size we should be able to play a 1-6. Wow, what a giant. Hope he smashes some mouth Saturday.

iowavol writes:

in response to BolivrBob:

Mount McCullers

I'm not sure about taking a nickname from one of Alabama's players for ours. But the comparison is fair. I'd like to see more TFL's out of McCullers as we did from Cody. He is easily the reason Alabama beat us three years ago.

volhitman writes:

in response to iowavol:

I'm not sure about taking a nickname from one of Alabama's players for ours. But the comparison is fair. I'd like to see more TFL's out of McCullers as we did from Cody. He is easily the reason Alabama beat us three years ago.

I agree. We have enough 'Bama on this team, we don't need their nicknames too. Glad your here Dan. Just keep going thru that OL like a Mack truck and somebody will aptly name you.
Go Vols!

hateNCloveTN writes:

volhitman, i think you just gave him a great name. "Mack the Truck"

JonGrudensAgent writes:

McCullers is doing a fine job, just needs to keep working and avoid complacency.

BigBadVol writes:

Good kid with a good attitude. You can't ask for more than that out of him.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

in response to VolsMan4Life:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

That was an awesome hurdle. I don't even remember who did it. S.Car.?

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