'Big Dan' big project for Vols

photo Tennessee defensive lineman Daniel McCullers is greeted by fans as the Volunteers arrive outside Davis Wade Stadium.

KNOXVILLE - Shortly after becoming Tennessee's defensive line coach, Steve Stripling began hearing plenty about this mountain of a tackle called "Big Dan."

Since he broke into coaching college football as a graduate assistant at Colorado in 1977, Stripling said he's never coached a player as big as the 6-foot-8, 360-pound Daniel McCullers.

Now he's trying to get the biggest Volunteer to maximize his ability.

"When I came here, all I heard about was Big Dan," Stripling said after Tennessee practiced indoors on a rainy Thursday morning. "As we've got acquainted, he's very quiet, but he's starting to loosen up. He's got tremendous potential, but he's a typical big man in that he's probably got away with a lot of things his whole life.

"He could play higher because he was bigger and stronger than everybody. To get him to play at the same level technique-wise and intensity-wise as the smaller guys is the challenge, and he's accepting the challenge. He just has a long way to go."

And the Vols are focusing on the small steps in the development of their big man.

Head coach Butch Jones singled out McCullers after Tuesday's practice for simply sprinting to the football. During one team period Thursday, Jones barked at McCullers over the wireless microphone he totes in practice for having his hands on his hips, a universal sign of fatigue. Stripling said he noticed the rising senior's improved leverage a couple of times Thursday morning.

Conditioning and leverage are typical issues with players of McCullers' size, and those are areas Tennessee's previous and current coaching staffs have tabbed as areas in need of improvement.

"They're training me every day," McCullers said after Tuesday's practice. "Each day, they're giving me techniques and tips and just pushing me forward to get better. I'm just going to take it all in and get better each and every day."

"He's responding great, but it's a process," Stripling said. "Coach Jones refers to it as brick by brick, and that's what we're doing. Put another brick in the wall today: He took a step forward.

"It's a day-by-day process."

In his first year at Tennessee after a two-year stint at Georgia Military College, McCullers was a nose tackle who showed an ability to stymie inside runs. Opposing offenses, though, torched the Vols with perimeter runs. McCullers made 39 tackles but finished with just 5.5 stops for loss and one sack.

On a defensive line devoid of any proven game-changers, Tennessee's new coaching staff identified McCullers, who will play as a more traditional defensive tackle in the Vols' return to the 4-3 defense, as a potential difference maker and have challenged him to reach that level in a fashion similar to the approach taken with linebacker A.J. Johnson.

"We want to see him be disruptive," defensive coordinator John Jancek said Thursday. "Come off the ball and knock a guy back and make a tackle for a loss. Play in the offense's backfield, not just on the line of scrimmage mauling people."

McCullers said the goal the coaches have laid in front of him is a lofty one.

"They're telling me they want me to be one of the best linemen that's walked through UT," he said. "It's going to take some work to do, because I'm not there yet, but we've got a long way till the season comes, so I'm going to continue to work and get better each and every day. It's a long way to go to be one of the best, because there's a lot of great D-linemen that have come here.

"It's a lot to live up to, but I'm just going to take it and keep training and working hard."

That work likely will focus on the little things such as finishing plays, sustaining maximum effort for longer stretches, staying low, using a correct stance and playing better -- or "more violent," as Jancek said -- with his hands.

"His thing is he's just kind of in there holding the point," Jancek said. "We want him to come off the ball and knock that guard back and put him in the backfield. He knows that, and he's working on it.

"There's times when you see some things from him and you're going, 'Man, this guy gets it and he could be a real force,' and it's just about time and working at it every single day."

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