KNOXVILLE - Daniel McCullers has no problem admitting he'll be nervous before his first Tennessee football game.
When the Volunteers' 6-foot-7, 360-pound nose tackle takes the Georgia Dome field Friday night in Atlanta against North Carolina State, a small group of supporters among the big crowd will incite the butterflies.
"All my family from Raleigh [N.C.] and coaches from my high school and junior college are coming down to see me play," McCullers said after Tennessee's practice Monday morning. "I've got to play hard for them and for my team. I'm going to do good for them.
"I want to have a big game. Who doesn't want to have a big game? Just go out there and dominate like I know I can."
The oversized McCullers and Tennessee's transitioning defense will face a big-conference Wolfpack team that has experience at quarterback and along the offensive line. The line returns 112 career starts on its two-deep depth chart, and 6-foot-6 fifth-year senior Mike Glennon threw for 3,054 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2011.
It's a tough first test for the Vols defense.
"When you throw for 3,000 yards and complete 63 percent, that's pretty good," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "They've got some special-skill guys ... who can really hurt you. I'm sure they feel very confident going into this game, and they should.
"They've got all their guys back up front, they've got their quarterback back and they've got some weapons on the perimeter."
Yet Tennessee's defenders enter Friday night's game with something to prove. With its all-junior college trio, the defensive line should be better than it was last season. But the linebacker corps is short on depth, and the secondary is searching for a playmaker or two.
"We've just got to come out there and create an identity for ourselves," said defensive end Darrington Sentimore, a juco transfer who began his career at Alabama. "Tennessee's been losing, but we're going to win this year. We want people to see us getting after the quarterback and running to the ball and [working] hard."
The Vols have spent the offseason preparing to establish that identity. Many of the players have expressed excitement in a changed formation and more aggressive style and believe new defensive coordinator Sunseri can maximize their ability. Yet until the Vols do it on a stage like the one they'll take Friday night, it's hollow talk.
The players have acknowledged they've had their own discussions. Bringing Tennessee back to its traditional level has been a common conversation, one that's become a singular focus.
"We talk about it a lot," nose tackle Daniel Hood said. "None of us wanted to be the team that's remembered for losing to Kentucky, and that's our identity right now. So we've got to go out and change it, and the only way to change it is to start with N.C. State."
Even if some of them are a little nervous.