At the University of Tennessee football team's rainy open practice at Neyland Stadium on Aug. 17, quarterback Justin Worley received a snap and was dropping back to survey his options. One moment, Worley looked every bit of his 6 feet 4 inches and 222 pounds. The next, he looked like a skinny kid.
Why? Nose tackle Daniel McCullers was in the backfield, standing straight up, all 6 feet 8 inches and 351 pounds of him.
If that sounds enormous, you're right. McCullers is not just the biggest player at UT, he's the biggest player in college football. What's even crazier is this is the new, 30-pounds-trimmer version of a player who was already heralded as being unusually agile for his size. The 2013 version of "Mount McCullers" is now expected to move faster and remain on the field for more plays than last year's man, according to defensive line coach Steve Stripling.
"Dan is a young man that has unbelievable potential. His future is as wide open as he wants," says Stripling, McCullers' second coach in as many years.
McCullers transferred to Tennessee in 2012 from Georgia Military College with a four-star rating and was considered the top junior college recruit out of the state of Georgia by Rivals.com. This year, he has already been named to the coaches' All-SEC second team and Phil Steele's College Football Preview All-SEC first team.
But why come to UT?
"Tennessee was the first school to give me a chance, and that stuck with me. Then I came up here and just fell in love," says the senior, who chose the Vols despite a scholarship offer from SEC powerhouse Alabama, among others. Upon arriving last year, McCullers saw action in all 12 games and led the Vol D-line in tackles.
When McCullers is not trucking centers and terrorizing tiny quarterbacks, he is as reserved as they come and carries himself "with a quiet confidence," according to new head coach Butch Jones.
"My goal is always to try and get Dan McCullers to smile. He is a great character player to coach," Jones says.
Away from the field, McCullers mostly stays in his room. Surprisingly, he spends a lot of time keeping up with a different sport—basketball. Growing up, McCullers idolized Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. These days, McCullers enjoys hoops via NBA 2K12 on his Xbox 360 and occasional pick-up games.
"I'm still pretty good, so get at me," he says, with the subtlest of grins.
After a disastrous defense in 2012, the Vols are counting on McCullers as one of 2013's few somewhat-proven defensive elements, along with terrifying middle linebacker A.J. "The Beast" Johnson, who led the SEC in tackles last year and has been recently named to the 2013 coaches' preseason All-SEC first team. Since the rest of the defense consists of freshmen or players out with injuries, this brutal tandem is one bright spot UT fans can look forward to watching.
One way the Vols hope to solve last year's woes is by returning to a 4-3 defensive scheme (that's four defensive linemen and three linebackers). Last season, defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri spent the season experimenting with a 3-4 package that never clicked, due to a lack of both speed and depth. The result was a full-on Dumpster fire: Tennessee was shredded for 5,657 yards, an increase of more than 1,500 yards from the previous season.
Bringing back a fourth down lineman will help new defensive coordinator John Jancek capitalize on McCullers' massive frame, as he will have even less of the field to cover. Even before shedding 30 pounds and evolving into a more disciplined tackle, McCullers was already disruptive and challenging to contain. If he continues to grow fundamentally and take advantage of his role in the reconfigured defense, he may be a big part of the Vols' turnaround.