“They’ve been waiting for him to make a play like that for four years!”
This is what the announcer said, excitedly, late in the Tennessee game versus South Carolina last season when Daniel McCullers made a big stop. The center tried to reach block him, but McCullers gave him a shove out of the way and tracked down the back for no gain.
Four years is a long time to wait for a 6’7”, 350-pound defensive tackle to make an impactful play. Of course it’s hyperbole—McCullers transferred to Tennessee after two years of playing junior college ball, for starters—but it speaks to the scarcity of quality on-field production found on McCullers’ college resume—namely, game footage.
There’s a reason that Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin described him as “a size prospect” in the team’s post-draft press conference. The reality is that his draft stock was evaluated based on the potential offered by his physical assets, and not his game tape or the numbers that he put up in college.
In 19 starts over the past two seasons, McCullers registered a sack and a half and 10 tackles for loss. He broke up two passes at the line of scrimmage, registered six hurries, forced one fumble, and blocked two kicks.
In other words, the most playing time he’ll receive this year might come on the field goal blocking unit next to Steve McLendon in the middle.
Realistically, 2014 will likely be a glorified redshirt season for McCullers, as 2013 was for Hebron Fangupo; ditto for Alameda Ta’amu in 2012.
If ever there were a prospect that you would want to hand over to defensive line coach John Mitchell and let him take his time breaking down and molding into what he needs him to be, it would be McCullers, because his physical attributes alone can make him a valuable piece of the defensive line rotation.
The first thing that he absolutely must work on is simply getting off the ball in time. As Alex Kozora thoroughly pointed out in his draft breakdown, he was routinely the last man off the ball on a play-to-play basis, which starts him off behind the play.
Even when he does get off the ball in a timely fashion, his play is far too inconsistent, with his two biggest problems being playing height and motor. He stays too tall too often, which makes it easier for linemen to move him around, despite his size. He also has a tendency to go half-speed, so to speak. Whether or not that’s due to conditioning or lack of motivation, I can’t say.
But when everything lines up as it should, there are glimpses of the player he should be capable of being, which is a dominant interior player. He may never ascend to that level—not on a consistent basis—but as a sixth-round pick, if he can become a regular rotation player, that would be a win.
In the meantime, he gave all the right answers during his post-draft conference call with the local media. We’ll see where that gets him in year one.
On the team known for Casey Hampton drafting him: “Hopefully I can be as dominating as he was so I’m going to continue to work. The Steelers believe in me, so I’m going to grind and try to be one of the best”.
On his ability to play low, despite being 6’7”: “At times it was, playing high that was one of my weaknesses but whenever I do get lower I can be a great player and I can’t be too loose or it stops. I am going to continue to work to where I can play each and every play and dominate the opponent in front of me”.
“I was getting a lot of talk about my playing leverage and playing intensity on every play. I’m working on it. I feel like I can be a dominant player if I just get in the best shape possible. I’m trimming down, working on my feet and quickness every day. I’m going to go in with the mindset that I’m going to get better”.