Steelers rookie makes a big impression all the way around


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His teammates and coaches call him Big Dan.

Linebackers coach Keith Butler, who played 10 seasons in Seattle in the 1980s, said he would come out of retirement if he could play behind him.

Buffalo Bills center Doug Legursky, a former Steelers player, went against him in a scrimmage on the first day of joint practice at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe this week and referred to him as the Jolly Green Giant.

But they also could affix another name to rookie defensive tackle Daniel McCullers.

Immovable.

“He’s the heaviest guy I’ve played against,” said Cody Wallace, the Steelers backup center. “He’s so incredibly heavy he just walks you back almost every time.”

“He’s tough to move,” guard David DeCastro said. “If wants to go somewhere, it’s tough to stop him.”

“He’s like a juggernaut — if he gets moving he’s hard to stop,” Legursky said after facing McCullers in two scrimmages in Latrobe.

Moving McCullers, a sixth-round draft choice from Tennessee, is like moving a piano.

He is just under 6 feet 8, weighs 358 pounds, wears a size 4XL jacket and size 18 shoe. His calves are as thick as telephone poles and his hand feels like a bear paw when you shake it. As a freshman at Southeast Raleigh High School in Garner, N.C., he was 6 feet 3, 320 pounds. Three years later, going into his senior year, he weighed 420 pounds.

He is not fat, just large, like a redwood. In any given practice, it usually takes two players to keep him from pushing into the backfield. Moving him off the line? Forget it. The next time McCullers goes backward at training camp will be the first.

“He can hold his ground,” Wallace said. “Nobody’s going to push him back. We’ve had times where guys had a chance to get a clean-up shot on him and give him everything you got and he barely budges. You want to stop him before he gets started.”

The Steelers have seen that from their massive rookie for more than two weeks in training camp. They saw it a week ago in the preseason opener against the New York Giants and they want to see more at 7:30 p.m. today when the Steelers play the Buffalo Bills at Heinz Field.

“He has a distinguishing characteristic — he’s an enormous man, one that’s difficult to move,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “But day in, day out, he’s proven he’s more than that. He likes to play football. He comes to work every day. I like the progress he’s making, but obviously he has some progress ahead of him.”

McCullers, though, is like the Michael Oher character in the movie, “The Blind Side.” He towers over most of the other players, but he is quiet and, according to defensive line coach John Mitchell, very shy. The Steelers would like to see him play with more emotion and wonder what he would be like if he played angry.

“Sometimes, it’s hard as a rookie,” DeCastro said. “I was shy as a rookie as well. It just takes time to get used to it and get comfortable.”

McCullers has been used primarily at nose tackle in training camp and, because of his size, has struggled with keeping his pad level low. Nonetheless, it takes more than one player to block him — the Giants used two and three players at times — meaning McCullers performs the most basic tenet of being a nose tackle just with his imposing size alone.

“It’s awesome,” said rookie linebacker Jordan Zumwalt, who lined up behind McCullers against the Giants and was free to make a team-high six tackles. “He eats up double-teams for you all day. Coach [Keith Butler] says it all the time — ‘This dude, Dan, is going to bring me out of retirement. I wish I could play behind him.’ We can make all the plays we want.”

Where McCullers fits on the defensive line is difficult to project. He is not athletic enough to play defensive end in the 3-4 and his height could make him an easy target for the better centers in the league at nose tackle.

But his size and raw power make him a good fit for the nickel and dime defensive packages when the Steelers want to generate a pass rush from their two lineman. Not to mention making him difficult to move in the middle.

“That’s what the coaches tell us — do your job and get them free and keep the linemen off them,” McCullers said. “If you do a good job of that, the defense will be successful.”

Right now, the Steelers will keep three defensive ends — Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Cam Thomas — and nose tackle Steve McLendon. Thomas also can play nose tackle, which could make it difficult for Hebron Fangupo to make the 53-man roster.

If Fangupo stays, the remaining one or two spots will come from McCullers, Nick Williams, Brian Arnfelt and two rookie free agents — Josh Mauro and Ethan Hemer. Mauro and Hemer have been surprise performers at camp.

But, as offensive linemen have discovered, it might be difficult for the Steelers to move McCullers out of there.

“Because I’m 6-foot-8, I feel like when I do stay low I can’t be moved,” McCullers said. “That’s my job, to hold up the linemen and get the linebackers free, but, whenever a play comes my way, I got to make it.”


Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.

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