Daniel McCullers: Tennessee's big man on campus

9:34 AM, Sep 13, 2012   |    comments
By Donald Page, Tennessee Athletics The agility and quickness of Daniel McCullers, even when he was much heavier than his current 360 pounds, was what drew coaches' attention.
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Practice is over, Daniel McCullers is hustling to his noon geology class on the University of Tennessee's campus, and that's when the fascination with him takes on a different form.

In pads, of course, he is still massive; a figure cut from comic books at 6-8 and 360 pounds, most of which is now solid muscle. But Southeastern Conference football is not measured on the normal human scale. On a field full of mammoth-sized men, he's simply a little bigger than everyone else.

In the real world, though, it's impossible for McCullers to blend in. As he waits for a bus to take him a half-mile up the hill from Tennessee's football complex, students slow down, staring unabashedly. McCullers tries not to notice. What are they looking at? How his cellphone gets swallowed up in the palm of his left hand? How his frame, which used to be considerably bigger, is carried by 21-inch calves that could double as cannonballs? How, as he makes his way toward an empty seat on the bus, it shakes just enough for everyone to feel it?

"There just aren't many people walking around like him," said Rob Manchester, his defensive coordinator last year at Georgia Military College.

McCullers shrugs.

"I've always been bigger than everyone," he said before settling into the back of a dark classroom, one of the rare moments he can disappear on a campus where he's already somewhat of a legend.

McCullers has only played two games at nose tackle for the Volunteers, but already he's been a major focus of attention in their new 3-4 defense, ascending from the practice squad to No. 1 on the depth chart during fall camp.

His job is not glamorous, the idea being that he's supposed to occupy the center and maybe even another offensive lineman so Tennessee's linebackers have room to fly in and make tackles. Basically, he's supposed to take up space. And anyone who shows up for that job at a power forward's height and a sumo wrestler's weight is going to become something of a folk hero.

"We didn't have a lot of big guys up front to handle what's going to come out you for 12 weeks playing in the SEC," head coach Derek Dooley said. "He was obviously bigger than most, but we didn't have anybody like him."

Rated as one of the top junior college players in the country last season, McCullers wasn't exactly a secret to Tennessee fans before their season-opening win against North Carolina State. But the reports of his size, combined with the fact that no one had seen him, made him seem like something more than a football player, never mind one who was completely unproven at the Bowl Subdivision level. It didn't take long for the comparisons to William "Refrigerator" Perry and Terrence Cody, defensive linemen renowned for their girth, to come rolling in.

"I was surprised at first how many people knew who I was," McCullers said. "I'd go on the message boards and they'd be talking about me, making up nicknames."

Big Dan. Mount McCullers. Shade Tree. Even The Green Mile, a reference to the movie in which the late Michael Clarke Duncan plays a man on death row.

"I don't like that one," he said.

For McCullers, whose mother couldn't raise him and whose father spent much of his youth in jail, it hits a little too close to home, a reminder of potential he nearly left unfulfilled.

Because before he was literally the biggest man on Tennessee's campus, before Dooley was counting on him to plug the middle this weekend against No. 17-ranked Florida, McCullers struggled to see what others saw in him.

When he showed up at Southeast Raleigh (N.C.) High, he had been cut from his middle school team and never saw football as a ticket to anything. He fell so far behind in his academics, he didn't have a prayer of qualifying for a Division I school. His eating habits were so out of control, he started pushing 400 pounds.

But McCullers was so quiet, so polite and so agreeable that his coaches refused to give up on him.

"It took us a year to get him to shake people's hands. It took three years to get him to talk," said Marvin Burke, then an assistant coach at Southeast. "He didn't realize how good he was going to be until he started playing. He got a second opportunity, and that was eye-opening."

That opportunity came when an assistant coach at South Carolina laid eyes on McCullers and asked him to get into a full squat, jeans and everything. Then the assistant watched him race skill players, staying with them for 20 yards or so, as Burke remembers it. McCullers' speed and flexibility was so impressive for his size, he got invited to a one-day camp shortly thereafter.

That's where coaches from Georgia Military College saw him. Located 100 miles southeast of Atlanta, it's not your typical junior college football factory. Though it sends several players to Division I scholarships every year, the academic curriculum is supported by military training. Practically every minute between breakfast at 5:45 a.m. and lights-out at 10:45 p.m. is choreographed.

When that became an option, McCullers' grandparents, who had raised him and his younger sister since childhood, were adamant that he give it a try.

"He matured kind of slow," said his grandfather, Donnie Ray McCullers. "They nurtured him and taught him how to become a young man. They tested his talents."

And his genetics.

Though height runs in McCullers' family -- his mother, Phyllis, is 6-0 -- so does a penchant for gaining weight. Donnie Ray said he was nearly 400 pounds at one point in his life, and his father was a large man, too.

Daniel wouldn't get to the SEC at that weight, so Brian Hill, the defensive line and strength coach at Georgia Military went to work on McCullers. The training was so intense, Hill said, that he almost wound up in fist fights every day with the typically gentle giant.

"He wasn't foolin' nobody," Hill said. "I'd tell him, 'You're not going to do it. You're not going to make it. You're not tough enough to play in the SEC.' But he just kept fighting, just kept believing. We got him down to 375, but we don't have a training table. They go to the cafeteria and eat whatever they want. It's hard."

And when McCullers gained some of that weight back after the season last fall, colleges got nervous again about his quickness and stamina. Though McCullers visited Alabama before choosing Tennessee, there was risk involved -- especially for the Vols, who desperately needed him as an anchor in the 3-4.

"I was worried sick that he was going to go home and get out of that structure and we'd have to spend a whole month just to get his weight down before we could train him," Dooley said. "But he reported at 381 and was 368 by the end of July with 23% body fat, which is incredibly low. He's worked hard, wants to be a good player and is improving every day. We're in the first quarter of a long journey for him."

McCullers plans on shedding a few more pounds, too, though he's carrying his weight with pride instead of fear now that he's cut out junk food and embraced wind sprints.

"They gave him a dietitian to make sure he eats right," Donnie Ray McCullers said. "He's more streamlined."

He's also comfortable at Tennessee, which is close enough to allow his family -- including his mother, who McCullers said is now "doing real good" after some rough patches during his childhood -- to watch him play frequently. And suddenly, the kid who was once too shy to celebrate even when he got his only high school touchdown is now reveling in the idea that he's such a curiosity as he ascends to the national stage.

"I guess being that big and everyone looking up to you and expecting so much, he kind of was shy," Finn said. "He came back this summer and he was walking with his head up, carrying on lengthy conversations. He came out of his shell."

 

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