Daniel McCullers' role growing for Tennessee Vols

Daniel McCullers' role growing for Tennessee Vols

October 9th, 2012 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

KNOXVILLE -- Daniel McCullers is fairly easy to see, even in a crowd of oversized football players.

The Tennessee nose tackle is 6-foot-7 and 360 pounds, after all.

Yet the Volunteers' plan for a three-game October gauntlet includes more viewing opportunities for their biggest player.

After the junior college transfer made a noticeable impact in Tennessee's loss to Georgia two weeks ago, the Vols coaches are ready to expand McCullers' role to where he can play against any scheme in any situation.

"I would say I'm pretty close," McCullers said after Tennessee practiced indoors on a cold and rainy Monday morning in Knoxville. "I'm going to continue to work."

Against the spread offenses of Georgia State and Akron, McCullers played a combined total of eight snaps. When the Vols started the Georgia game in their nickel package with four down defensive lineman and five defensive backs, McCullers was on the sideline. When the big man did play against the Bulldogs, he made eight tackles and one behind the line.

Defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said Tennessee will push McCullers to play as much as he can to maximize the impact he can have on a game.

"I think he's improving every week, and our challenge is to see how much we can play him before he hits a dip," coach Derek Dooley said Monday. "He's a good football player, and we need to keep amping up his plays each week, no matter what the offense does. I think that's something that we're learning a little more about him and some of the other new guys on defense."

The next opponent will test the words of Tennessee's coaches. Mississippi State, unbeaten and ranked 19th, features the kind of spread offense that would have rendered McCullers a sideline spectator last month. The Bulldogs' offense isn't flashy, but it's effective.

For Tennessee to make their prized 2012 defensive signee more effective, the Vols need to give him more plays and keep him on the field in the nickel package on pass downs.

"I'm still working on it," he said. "They put me back on nickel [with] the first group. Before they didn't want me on nickel. Right now they do, so I'm going to work for the team and do what the team wants."

McCullers said there's "not really" much of a difference between his job in Tennessee's base defense and nickel package, thus making the previous limit a bit peculiar. McCullers won't zip around any offensive linemen, yet his size gives him the ability to affect the pocket, and his height and long arms give him the ability to disrupt a quarterback's vision and deflect passes at the line of scrimmage.

With just six sacks in five games, Tennessee is last in the Southeastern Conference in that category, so the Vols likely are willing to try another combination to improve that area.

"He brings a different kind of pass rush because he can push the pocket, which is just as effective sometimes," Dooley said. "It's not like we're having the sack masters up front. We're not taking any pass-rush specialist out of the game if we put him in."

Though the potential is there for McCullers to be a disruptive pass rusher, he admits that part of his repertoire needs work. The specifics include firing off the ball quicker and fine-tuning the technique. McCullers' conditioning and how many snaps he can play in succession and across four quarters is another question that needs an answer.

The Vols believe McCullers can help them find the solution and now are ready to test the theory.

"Being a pass rusher in nickel, that's a big key, but that's something I have to work on," McCullers said. "I've got to learn moves. Usually I just bullrush, but that works most of the time.

"I'm progressing pretty good. I'm going to continue to go. I'm going to work so I can go get better at it."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.