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(Not As) Big Man On Campus

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Though he's down below 360 pounds, Tennessee DT Daniel McCullers still presents a huge challenge for opposing linemen. Photo courtesy of Tennessee Media Relations.
Though he's down below 360 pounds, Tennessee DT Daniel McCullers still presents a huge challenge for opposing linemen. Photo courtesy of Tennessee Media Relations.

Daniel McCullers saw something this spring that he hadn’t seen since his freshman year in high school.

No, not his feet. Though that would be a reasonable guess, considering McCullers reportedly once weighed north of four bills. That’s right, at one point early in his JUCO career at Georgia Military College, one Daniel McCullers was greater than a LeSean McCoy plus a Bryant McFadden.

What Tennessee’s senior defensive tackle saw this spring, if his interviews with the local Knoxville media are to be believed, was a scale readout under 350 pounds. Talk about making a molehill out of a mountain.

Don’t misunderstand. Officially listed at 6-foot-8, 360 pounds, McCullers still will be the biggest man on campus – pretty much any campus – this football season. It’s just that when McCullers enters the NFL in 2014, it likely won’t be as the heaviest guy in the big leagues.

Believe it or not, McCullers newfound svelteness is not the biggest change affecting his draft prospects. Rather, the bigger deal is his revised role on the interior of Tennessee’s defensive line.

Last year, the Vols switched to a 3-4 front, which resulted in the worst defense Tennessee has seen since the Scopes Monkey Trial. McCullers was one of the few bright spots, a quintessential space-eating nose tackle. He finished his first season of major college football with modest stats (39 tackles, 1 sack, 5.5 TFL), but his presence had been felt.

Against the eventual national champs, Alabama rolled a steady tide of NFL draft picks McCullers’ way. He often found himself locked up in the trenches simultaneously with first-round pick Chance Warmack and fourth-round pick Barrett Jones. When he'd line up over the right guard, first-rounder D.J. Fluker would block down and pick him up.

Missouri frequently triple-teamed him. On one of the plays they saw fit to block him with only two linemen, McCullers forced a fumble.

But this year, Tennessee will be back in its customary 4-3. And McCullers expects to find himself playing some three technique, lining up on the outside shoulder of the guard. That’s where you’d expect to find a defensive tackle more in the Warren Sapp mold (you know . . . little guys . . . someone in the neighborhood of a mere 300 pounds, like Florida’s Sharrif Floyd or Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson were coming out in this year’s draft).

It doesn’t sound like a conventional fit for a position that calls for a quick gap-shooter. Call it thinking outside the [refrigerator] box. But just think about how having a guy McCullers' size at the three technique ruins a protection scheme. If McCullers is able to improve his bull rush, offenses may have to consider using a tackle as part of a double-team against him. That’s bound to create some pressure opportunities for Tennessee’s defensive ends.

The move won't be the adjustment that you might think. Even in the 3-4, McCullers didn't line up exclusively over the the center. He routinely lined up in the A gap or over the guard. Plus, he played in a 4-3 front back in high school.

And if it doesn’t work out at the three technique and McCullers winds up playing more of a traditional nose tackle role, imagine the potential disruption to the top of the pocket. Either way, it is now McCullers’ job to make plays, something a 4-3 scheme asks of its interior defensive linemen that a 3-4 does not (the nose tackle’s primary job in a 3-4 is to draw a double-team and keep blockers off the two inside backers).

The NFL is going to want to see McCullers make those plays and continue to disrupt inside passing lanes. They’re going to want to see if the loss of weight equates to a loss of power, if it translates into more mobility. Not that range was a weakness for Mount McCullers, even at 380-ish. Last year, he brought down Florida quarterback Chris Driskel 25 yards downfield.

No one is ever going to confuse McCullers for, say, 298-pound defensive tackle Nick Fairley, whom the Lions took out of Auburn with the 13th pick of the 2011 NFL draft. But no one is going to mistake him for Terrence Cody either. 

In the end, McCullers may find that he fits comfortably not only into new clothes but any NFL defensive system. And he may drop his weight enough to be legitimately mistaken for his Tennessee teammate, 6-6, 232-pound offensive tackle Antonio Richardson. In which case, the former 400-pounder may need to borrow Richardson's nickname: Tiny.