<strong>KNOXVILLE —</strong> Daniel McCullers has heard it all.
Two days before the Tennessee defensive tackle even stepped on the field for his final college training camp, his coach dubbed him the make-or-break player for the Volunteers’ defense.
The challenges a first-year coaching staff heaped on their largest player have been replaced by the burden of expectations.
And McCullers knows about them.
“Here’s the thing about Dan: He’s listening,” defensive line coach Steve Stripling said after Saturday afternoon’s practice. “He’s taking it all in. We’ve come closer. We’ve spent more one-on-one time together.
“Coaching is like teaching: There’s buttons to push on different kids, and everybody’s got a different approach for teaching. You just have to man-to-man talk to him. That’s the best way, because he’s listening and he’s taking it in.”
For a Tennessee defense that lacked pretty much everything last year, when it registered the worst statistical season in the program’s history under coordinator Sal Sunseri, finding difference makers was a must in the repair process. So the Vols’ new staff targeted McCullers and middle linebacker A.J. Johnson during spring practice.
When first-year head coach Butch Jones said last week his team would go as far as McCullers would carry them on his 6-foot-8, 352-pound frame, the second-year senior wasn’t surprised.
“It’s time for me to step up to the plate,” he said after Friday’s practice. “The defense is depending on me. That’s what he said, so I’m going to give it all I’ve got. I kind of knew it was coming. Since the spring, he was always on me just to make me better.”
McCullers is the lightest he’s been since early in his high school years. He’s dropped 40-plus pounds since he arrived on Tennessee’s campus at 395, the same weight he was at when fellow defensive tackle Mo Couch hosted him on his official visit for the Vanderbilt game in 2011.
“There’s no way he’s going to play on the defensive side,” Couch said Friday, recalling his initial impression of McCullers. “He was just real massive. I felt like they were going to make him a tackle or an offensive guard or something at first. He proved a lot of people wrong and just did his thing.”
Now Tennessee’s coaches want McCullers to do their thing, namely anchor a defense that believes it has developed a renewed confidence with a simpler scheme and a change in leadership.
“He’s got to have a great year,” defensive coordinator John Jancek said Saturday. “In the offseason, he’s worked hard to lose weight, but that’s just part of it. He’s got to go out and practice at a high level; he’s got to improve with his technique and with his level of intensity.”
In his first season after transferring from Georgia Military College, McCullers led the Vols’ defensive linemen in tackles (39), but he managed just one sack — against Kentucky in the season finale — and only 5.5 tackles for loss. He started seven games after Tennessee might have underused him in early-season games against teams with pass-happy spread offenses.
He did his most damage against Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri, when he totaled 22 tackles and 3.5 for loss, and the Vols are hoping for that version of McCullers this season.
“I’m going to have to go with it. I’ve got no other choice,” he said. “I haven’t won [the coaches] over at all. We’ve got a long process ahead of us.
“They’re going to continue to be on me because they know I’m a big player on the defense and I’ve got to make plays.”
As he’s developed a better relationship with his big defensive tackle, Stripling believes McCullers has the ability to deliver.
“I think he’s older, he’s a senior [who’s] involved with a group of seniors that understand that responsibility and the pressure we’re putting on them,” he said. “They all want to be successful. He’s shouldering that weight just like all our other players.”
<em>Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.</em>