KNOXVILLE — The 5 a.m. wake-up calls were over.
The rigorous daily routine of training, marching and saluting in an undersized military uniform were done, too.
Yet the hard work was just beginning for Daniel McCullers.
The unusually large nose tackle took an unusual path to get to the University of Tennessee from Southeast Raleigh (N.C.) High School, and the part of the trip that took him back to his hometown might have helped prepare him to be an early contributor for the Volunteers.
"I've been through a lot," the 6-foot-7 McCullers said Saturday. "It's been a process. I'm ready to continue to get better."
Georgia Military College in Milledgeville, a central Georgia town with a population of roughly 20,000, is no typical junior college. The army aspect requires a daily routine of intense physical training, saluting officers, marching, following orders and adhering to meticulous details.
For McCullers already had done three hours of military work and four hours of class by the time he went to football practice each day.
"It was pretty tough on everybody," said McCullers, a quiet and respectful talker.
Also unlike other junior colleges and high schools, Georgia Military's academic year ended in mid-March. McCullers went back to Raleigh to finish two online courses before heading to Tennessee at the start of June. The Vols' coaches feared the time away from the routine would increase McCullers' chances of showing up overweight and poorly conditioned.
Instead, McCullers went back to his high school, where Southeast Raleigh coach Marvin Burke and defensive coordinator Keith Boddie kept him on track.
"We worked together, training every day, running miles, lifting weights," McCullers said. "They kept me on a good pace. They want me to succeed and do good, so they were hard on me."
McCullers showed up to Tennessee around 380 pounds, and after two summer months with Vols' strength coach Ron McKeefery, he's closer to 360. He's still the biggest player on the team, an imposing figure. He has 21-inch calves and size-18 shoes, and there's not much bad weight on his immense frame.
McCullers' quick ascension to the first-team defense is even more encouraging for the Vols than the shape he reported in.
"I'd like to think it's not a surprise, but yet I think it is in a lot of ways," said John Palermo, the demanding defensive line coach. "He's done some very, very good things, and he's still got a long ways to go. I think Dan's going to be fine, I really do.
"I didn't really know [what to expect], to be quite honest with you. I knew we had a big man there. I knew, having conversations with him, that he was a real good kid."
The Vols know firsthand the difficulty of the juco-to-SEC transition for defensive linemen. It took Maurice Couch half a season to settle in last season. Darrington Sentimore has kicked his play up a notch or two in training camp after arriving out of shape for spring practice.
How quickly McCullers could adapt was simply impossible to know.
"We have been encouraging him to be better and everything," Couch said. "I've been helping him myself because I don't want him to have the situation I did last year when I came in and it took me five games to get in a groove. I'm trying to do that to help him so he can start the season out better."
Though he's possibly the most important piece of Tennessee's new 3-4 defense, McCullers won't need 10 tackles and three sacks a game to make an impact. Playing nose tackle is a thankless job: take up a couple of offensive linemen, plug up the middle of the line and watch someone else go make the tackle.
Your chances of getting get double- and triple-teamed every play are much higher than making a bunch of tackles, yet a nose tackle can control a game without showing up in the stats.
"Playing nose tackle is tough -- [taking] blocks, triple teams and double teams every play just to free up the linebackers," McCullers admitted. "But I like doing that. It's a challenge, and freeing up linebackers and seeing them make plays, that's fine with me as long as we win."
According to some of Tennessee's offensive linemen, McCullers is tough to move. That size is a nice asset to have while he develops other parts of his game. He must learn to play lower and continue to improve his conditioning.
"He's real mild-mannered," Palermo said. "I'd like to get him ticked off a little bit more often. He's a good person and he works hard.
"We've got to get him up to football speed every time the ball's snapped."
McCullers believes he's in the best shape he's been in since high school. He knew coming to Tennessee and playing in the SEC would be tough. While he's gone down his new path perhaps faster than expected, McCullers knows there's still plenty ahead of him.
"I felt like I could get used to it, but it would be a process I'd have to learn," he said. "The plays, the system and the school -- I'm getting better each and every day."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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