KNOXVILLE - Daniel McCullers arrived at Tennessee with the expectation that he'd be an immediate contributor to the Volunteers' defensive line.
The mammoth nose tackle will have the chance to do exactly that.
The 6-foot-7, 365-pound McCullers is listed as the starting nose tackle on the first depth chart of the season, which Tennessee released Thursday morning.
"His fit in that base defense and not having someone with that kind of bulk is the starting point, and then watching him work and progress," coach Derek Dooley explained after the Vols' Thursday morning practice. "He's gotten better. He's finishing plays.
"That was going to be our biggest concern is could he finish a play, and he's done well, so I hope he can keep going."
McCullers' semester at Georgia Military College ended in March, so the North Carolinian returned to his hometown of Raleigh and worked out at his high school to remain in shape. That training allowed him to arrive in decent shape when he got to Tennessee in June. The time he didn't need for his conditioning turned into valuable time he used to prepare for the season.
"The conditioning component of it ... we weren't having to get him in shape to where we could coach him," Dooley said. "We started coaching him day one."
Now Tennessee hopes McCullers can be a hole-plugging, run-stuffing disruptor on day one.
Dooley said Rajion Neal's daily consistency was the biggest factor in the junior winning the tailback race ahead of Devrin Young and Marlin Lane. After switching back to tailback full time from receiver, the 5-foot-11, 211-pound Neal spent the summer lifting weights with the offensive linemen. Neal proved he was Tennessee's most talented backfield option with solid scrimmage performances this month.
"It's hard for me to say any one day he had a great practice and one day he had a bad one," Dooley said. "I couldn't identify his great practice or his bad one. He's been real consistent and comfortable in that role.
"He's produced every day, he's progressed in all his areas and we feel good about him."
Though Young and Lane still will play, Neal will be the first one in the backfield when the Vols play North Caroina State in Atlanta a week from today.
Clearing it up
Though Herman Lathers is Tennessee's Mike linebacker responsible for communicating alignments, blitzes and coverages each play, the senior is actually the Vols' Will linebacker. Sophomore standout A.J. Johnson is listed as Tennessee's Mike linebacker. There's a reason in lining up the two inside linebackers in that particular way.
"A.J. is a Mike body type, and I think the Will 'backer, you can keep him off the guards a little easier," Dooley explained. "Their body types are really more suited for where we're putting them. The Mike has historically been the signal-caller, and so Herman, of course, having that command, he'd been at Mike, but we think he can still be the signal-caller and we can put A.J. where he needs to play because that's really where the fits in this defense."
Matt Darr and Michael Palardy were bracketed as Tennessee's punter, though Dooley suggested Darr would be the first one on the field. The two rotated depending on the situation last season, though neither was spectacular. That's not been the case during the 2012 preseason, however.
"They've had as good a camp by two punters as I've ever been around," Dooley said. "We charted every single punt they did ... and they're just punting 'lights out.' Matt will probably go out there first, but we've got two punters."
Unlike Dooley's first two years, there were just three freshmen on the initial two-deep roster: Cody Blanc (receiver), LaTroy Lewis (outside linebacker) and Justin King (fullback). ... Freshman receiver Alton "Pig" Howard (foot) is "a few weeks" away from returning, but freshman receiver Jason Croom (hamstring) return is unknown. ... The only other real surprise on the depth chart was Corey Miller. After he was away from the team all spring to focus on academics, the junior has sewn up a spot in the Vols' defensive-line rotation. "He's really impressed everybody, he's a real slippery pass rusher [and] he always shows up in the backfield," Dooley said. ... Tennessee returns to practice on Monday.