The buzz began with one image, a scene so unfathomable it had to be photo-shopped.
But it wasn’t.
Tree-trunk legs with a waistline that would be chest-high for most. An upper body that made the No. 96 look remarkably out of scale. Just mass, endless mass, and a low-cut jersey that could serve as a gown for us mere mortals.
The legend of Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel McCullers and his incredible physical presence has grown since this image (on the right) surfaced. Others photos have followed, each just as hard to comprehend. With a season in the SEC under his massive belt, however, the potential of college football’s biggest being remains a mystery.
On his official Tennessee bio, McCullers is listed at 6’8” and 360 pounds. This is actually down from his playing weight last year—around 380 pounds.
“Man Mountain,” “Mount McCullers,” “Big Dan” and “Ton DMC” (clearly the winner of the bunch) are just a handful of the nicknames that McCullers has acquired since arriving in Knoxville. And while they still apply, McCullers is now below the 350-pound mark for the first time since his freshman year of high school.
Calling him “big” just doesn't seem appropriate. He requires something more.
“I’ve covered the SEC for all but two or three years since 2000 and he tops them all,” said Wes Rucker, senior writer at GoVols247 who still marvels at McCullers' size at each Tennessee practice. “He makes 6-4, 300-pound linemen look like linebackers. It’s amazing.”
If the name Daniel McCullers is new to you, you’re likely not alone. After spending his freshman and sophomore seasons at Georgia Military College, he transferred to Tennessee before his junior season.
While his size has been well known, the rest is not. Scouts and coaches have had a difficult time evaluating McCullers because his dimensions have yet to produce consistent dominance along the defensive front.
247Sports had him rated as the No. 41 JUCO player and the No. 6 defensive tackle. He recorded 37 tackles, nine for loss, and two sacks in his final season at Georgia Military Academy while being recruited by former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley.
Playing under Dooley, against much-improved competition, his numbers were comparable. In 12 games, McCullers recorded 39 tackles (including eight against Georgia), five-and-a-half for loss and one sack.
On one play in particular against Georgia, his unbelievable potential was on full display. Although Aaron Murray completed the pass for a substantial gain, McCullers bulldozed Georgia's 300-pound center, moving him like a shopping cart with a bad wheel.
Oh, this is beautiful football poetry that requires multiple viewings.
Considering the significant upgrade in talent he was facing, his 2012 season gave McCullers a solid foundation. Still, his ceiling remains out of sight. His play (and effort) isn’t always where it needs to be.
New Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is hoping this talent comes into focus. McCullers is keeping his weight down in an effort to improve his conditioning, and expectations are beginning to build.
Butch Jones on Dan McCullers: "I think we've probably pushed him the hardest, because we need him to be a dominating defensive tackle."— Volquest Staff (@Volquest_Rivals) April 20, 2013
As both Jones and defensive line coach Steve Stripling push him, hoping that he realizes this potential, McCullers has done what he has always done: quietly go about his business.
While he’s impossible to miss on the field, vocally he’s quite the opposite.
“He’s a really good kid, but he’s incredibly soft-spoken and hates drawing attention to himself off the field,” Rucker added. “You have to strain to hear him. I never imagined such a big guy would have such a quiet voice.”
Tennessee isn’t worried about his demeanor. Instead it's counting on McCullers to help stop the run, something that was problematic a season ago. The Vols ranked 87th against the run in 2012, allowing 4.75 yards per carry and giving up 25 touchdowns on the ground.
The defense is undergoing yet another overhaul, switching to a more traditional 4-3 front versus the 3-4 run under former defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri. For McCullers, this will means opportunities to be more than just a space-eater. He’ll have chances to disrupt, and a sudden influx of batted balls wouldn’t be a surprise, either.
As he readies for his senior season, the inevitable talk about his NFL future has started to surface.
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper has McCullers ranked as the No. 4 defensive tackle in the country and No. 43 overall on his yearly big board. Other scouts and draft analysts will undoubtedly be fascinated with this unique prospect simply because of his size. If he can back it up with improved play, the buzz could be enormous.
“Some people think he’s a first-rounder. I think that remains to be seen, but he’s really a much better athlete than most people probably imagine,” Rucker said of his draft potential. “When he wants to go fast, he’s not slow. NFL teams will see that. Many already have seen it.”
Just how much McCullers improves during his senior year will be telling. His improvement could mean a fast start for a program that would love to add wins and early success to some recent recruiting momentum. It could also mean an added checking account boost for McCullers come next spring’s NFL draft.
Whether a slimmed-down McCullers finally reaches his potential this fall remains to be seen, although he’s one to keep an eye on in the SEC.
After all, he’ll be hard to miss.
*Adam Kramer is the Lead Football Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.