Steelers made 'earth move' with 6th-round draft pick

Defensive tackle could be biggest in team's history



How big is Daniel McCullers, a massive defensive tackle from Tennessee who could be the largest person to ever wear a Steelers uniform?

General manager Kevin Colbert called him "gigantic ... an obstruction."

Former Tennessee player Charles Davis of the NFL Network said, "The earth moves when he walks."

Defensive line coach John Mitchell said it appeared there were two players in the middle of Tennessee's defensive line when he watched film of McCullers.

McCullers wears a size 54 jacket, size 18 shoes and, by his own admission, had to trim down from the 420 pounds he weighed as a senior at Southeast Raleigh High School in North Carolina.

"Growing up I was always the big kid," McCullers said. "Once I hit my sophomore and junior year of high school, that's when I started getting my growth spurts. I guess I got like four of them each year and just kept growing."

At 6 feet 7, 352 pounds, McCullers probably is the largest defensive lineman the Steelers have ever had. Along with former offensive tackle Max Starks (6-8, 340), he's one of the largest they've ever drafted.

The Steelers took him in the sixth round, with the 215th pick overall, and plan to use him at nose tackle and defensive end in their defense. His massive size created an instant buzz on the South Side.

"We think we got the fastest player in the draft," Colbert said, referring to third-round choice Dri Archer of Kent State. "And I'm pretty sure we got the biggest guy in the draft."

READ more on Kent State's Dri Archer

"He blots out the sun and the earth moves when he walks," said Davis, a former Volunteers defensive back. "He's an absolute monster."

It is apparent the Steelers are trying to get bigger up front in an attempt to improve their run defense, which sagged to No. 21 in the league in 2013. After signing defensive end Cam Thomas (6-4½, 338) from the San Diego Chargers in free agency, they added McCullers and second-round choice Stephon Tuitt of Notre Dame (6-5, 303) in the draft.

"We wanted to infuse some young talent into that group and we feel like we did it with those guys," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Big is a good description when you talk about those guys that play in the trenches, and those guys fit the bill."

McCullers wore No. 98 jersey at Tennessee, the same number as another enormous former Volunteers defensive lineman -- John Henderson, who was 6 feet 7, 328 pounds and played 10 years in the NFL.

Ideally, the Steelers would like McCullers to play more at that weight, especially if they would use him at defensive end in addition to playing inside.

"I wouldn't say [he's] too big; he's probably not quick enough to be outside right now," Mitchell said. "This guy is 6-6, which we like. You get a 6-6 guy, you probably want him 315 to 325 pounds at the max. You don't want a guy where he can't get up field and where he can't get off blockers."

Mitchell added, "358 to 360, that's a little heavy for us. He's a big guy though. When you see him on tape and compare him to the guys he played against, you're like seeing two guys at one position. He's a big guy, he can run and they have a tough time moving him from the point of attack."

McCuller's football career almost never got started. He was cut from his middle school team in Garner, N.C., despite his size, and was quiet and withdrawn in high school. He played football at Southeast Raleigh and started to grow more, ballooning to 420 pounds his senior season. But his grades suffered, in part because he was too shy to ask questions in class, one of his former high school assistant coaches, Keith Boddie, said in an interview in the Raleigh News & Observer.

McCullers ended up attending Georgia Military College for two years, improving his grades and dropping his weight. He was rated the best defensive tackle and the sixth-best junior-college player in the country by Rivals.com and attracted the attention of major-college programs.

He chose Tennessee over Alabama and started 19 of 24 games for the Volunteers the past two seasons.

"Why he was there in the draft when he was is hard for me to say, but the size is intriguing," Colbert said. "He goes to the Senior Bowl and does some things which make you really say, 'Wow.' When I made the visit to Tennessee in the fall, I came away saying this guy is gigantic and can play defense. It's an obstruction and he's a nice, big guy to work with. Big guys are hard to come by these days."

The Steelers were the only team to formally interview McCullers at the NFL combine in February. Other teams were scared off by his size, thinking he was too tall for a nose tackle and might have problems controlling his weight.

Even McCullers acknowledged he has problems playing low enough in the middle, preventing him from getting leverage and making him easier to move -- if such a thing is possible for a player his size.

"Playing high, that was one of my weaknesses," McCullers said. "But whenever I do get lower, I can be a great player. 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."

McCullers added, "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."

McCullers played inside in a 4-3 defensive front at Tennessee, starting 12 games at left defensive tackle in 2013 and seven at nose guard in 2012 when he weighed 377 pounds as a junior. His college stats were modest: 72 career tackles, including 10 for a loss; 1½ sacks and six quarterback pressures. But, because of his size, he also was able to block two kicks.

With the Steelers, tackles stats might be irrelevant. His main responsibility will be to eat up space and blockers to let the linebackers make tackles, especially if he plays nose tackle.

"Those types of guys are hard to find," Mitchell said. "I'd rather work with a guy that is too big than one that you can't see him when he goes down in a stance."

Make no mistake, there will be no missing Daniel McCullers.

 

MORE on the NFL Draft 2014: Rookies traditionally don't crack the opening-day lineup, but this crop could

MORE on the Steelers: Q&A with ESPN's Merril Hoge


Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac. First Published May 11, 2014 10:41 PM

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