Daniel McCullers couldn’t pinpoint the cell number of the text he received Saturday night. But he knew it was a coach’s.
Turns out it was the head coach, which made the message that much better.
The subject of the text was a defensive play Tennessee’s largest lineman had made in the scrimmage that afternoon. McCullers had broken free from the traffic jam at the line of scrimmage, hustled downfield and swatted the football loose from Pig Howard as he tried to advance a screen pass.
First-year UT coach Butch Jones was as excited by the effort as the turnover it produced. So were McCullers’ teammates, who watched the play again in the video package assembled and disseminated by Jones two days later.
Usually, such videos are a compilation of highlights and mistakes. This one was highlights only.
“I wanted the players to see just how close they were (to doing things the right way),” Jones said.
McCullers’ play showed something else as well. It demonstrated the potential of UT’s 6-foot-6, 347-pound tackle.
When former coach Derek Dooley signed him out of Georgia Military Academy last year, the significance was measured in pounds. McCullers was 377 at the time, appropriately constructed to clog the middle of the field in Tennessee’s new 3-4 alignment. A few games later, it became apparent McCullers’ attributes weren’t limited to occupying space.
Getting him to perform consistently at a high level has been the challenge. And, as McCullers will tell you, that has been a recurring theme.
High school, junior college and college coaches came to the same conclusion.
“They always were on me because they knew what I could do,” he said. “I’m used to it.”
There’s a sense of urgency about his potential as Tennessee seeks to bounce back from the worst defensive performance in school history.
The Vols need big plays. And he can’t make them from the sideline.
“I’ve got to continue to work on my conditioning,” McCullers said. “So I can make more plays.”
If he needs extra incentive, he can check the schedule. Game Three is against Oregon, which runs plays at such a blurring tempo, defenders can grow weary just watching.
Senior Corey Miller, one of McCullers’ sidekicks in the defensive line, already has taken notice of the Quack Attack.
“I see the pace they run plays and the type of plays they’re running,” said Miller, who has been watching video of upcoming opponents. “They really go fast. I remember my freshman year (Oregon 48, UT 13). That was a wake-up call.”
The Vols will take on the rematch with a new staff. And a new mind-set on defense, too. The catchphrase is “Orange Swarm,” which came up again during the highlight video.
“In some clips, we had the whole defense running to the ball,” linebacker A.J. Johnson said proudly.
You might surmise that a player of McCullers’ size in pursuit of a ballcarrier could constitute an “Orange Swarm” unto itself. His teammates would welcome repeat performances.
“I know he can do it,” Miller said. “It’s all about whether or not he wants to.
“I told him straight up, ‘Look at yourself on film. Look what you can do.’ ”