The NFL Draft

Southeast Raleigh High grad Daniel McCullers awaits the NFL Draft

cbest@newsobserver.comMay 6, 2014 

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    Triangle connections in NFL

    Daniel McCullers hopes to join this list of notable NFL players who played high school football in the Triangle:

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    T.J. Graham;Buffalo Bills;Wakefield

    Willie Smith;Oakland Raiders;North Johnston

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— It was a fitting question, though still odd at face value, when the Cleveland Browns dropped the brick question on Southeast Raleigh High School grad Daniel McCullers during an interview at the NFL Combine in February.

A Browns coach asked McCullers how many things he could do with a brick. “I didn’t have many answers for that,” McCullers admitted. “I had that you can build a mailbox and house with bricks. I just kind of blanked after that.”

Chalk it to up first-time job interview jitters.

McCullers, a mountain of a man at 6-foot-7 and 352 pounds who is coming off of a solid two-year run at the University of Tennessee, could turn into one of the key building blocks for an NFL team later this week. The defensive tackle is likely to be drafted on the second or third day of the draft.

If that happens – and opinions on his draft whereabouts go anywhere from the second to the seventh round – it will complete a long football odyssey that almost never got started after he was cut from the football team at North Garner Middle School.

When he arrived at Southeast Raleigh as a 13-year-old freshman, McCullers quickly gained recognition for his size and his quiet, withdrawn nature.

Some of McCullers’ issues – both in football and in the classroom – came because he was so shy. “He wouldn’t ask questions in class because he was so shy,” recalled then Southeast defensive line coach and current Bulldogs athletic director Keith Boddie. “I remember when he went on a Saturday college visit to Appalachian State with a couple of other players and coaches. They came back and said he didn’t say five words the entire trip. You see him now and the transformation, the confidence he carries himself with, he’s made quite the transformation.”

He worked but he always fell into the project in high school, both on the football field and in the classroom. So he wound up basically off of the big football radar at Georgia Military College for two years.

“It was a tough balance to deal with,” McCullers said. “Most of the time you’re with your teammates, football teammates, the whole day. That helped me get through it. I got through it, that’s all you can say about that. It was a good two years for me.”

Success there, both in the classroom, on the field and at the training table (where he continued to drop the excess weight that made him unable to play more than a play or two a time early in his high school career and had ballooned to 420 pounds at one point) brought scholarship offers from major programs.

He took the offer to transfer to Tennessee, choosing the Vols over Alabama, surprised most with his immediate success becoming a reliable contributor, playing in 24 games the past two seasons with 72 tackles, 10 for losses.

Those exploits earned him a trip to the Senior Bowl in February where he thrived working with the Jacksonville Jaguars’ coaching staff. Then came weeks of training at the IMG Academy in Florida, a trip through the NFL Combine where a strained hamstring limited some of his workout.

All was well by the time of Tennessee’s Pro Day where he posted a 5.31-second run in the 40 and an eight-foot, three-inch broad jump.

He knows there is all kinds of speculation about his future and reasons why he could go later in the draft than earlier. Namely, leverage on the line of scrimmage. When McCullers gets it, he can rarely be stopped but when he gets too high, he can be easy to move around for a player of his size.

“There are flashes of him being very nimble and a guy who can be special,” said Josh Norris of Rotoworld and an NBC Sports NFL Draft Writer. “When he doesn’t have leverage, he doesn’t have a good anchor. His measurables (a three-foot plus wingspan, etc.) are amazing. I can see someone drafting him in the fifth through seventh round.”

McCullers says he’s been told he’s anywhere from a second to a fourth round pick. He said the Cardinals, Ravens, Texans and Rams seemed to be the most interested in him during the Combine. Recently, he’s been in nearly constant contact with representatives from the Giants and the Ravens.

Norris says it’s difficult to project what kind of team will draft a player like McCullers, who doesn’t figure to be on the field much in passing situations.

“You just don’t know where each team values a early-down defensive tackle,” Norris said. “He could be a fit with a lot of teams.”

McCullers knows leverage is where he needs to continue to work but doesn’t worry much about being “too tall,” citing the success of another player his size in the NFL, Arizona’s Calais Campbell.

McCullers has spent the last couple of weeks leading up to the draft continuing to work out, sometimes back at Southeast Raleigh, where he started to fall in love with football; the place where he started to come out of his shell.

As the final days tick away before the draft, McCullers is becoming calmer.

“It bothers me less,” he said. “It’s a big day for me, knowing that you could potentially get drafted. As long as I get picked up, I know I’ve made it. You can always work your way up. You just have to produce.”

Those are the lessons that helped thrive from high school to junior college to the Southeastern Conference. It’s one that now that he’s willing to talk a bit more than he did on that car ride to and from Boone.

“Only thing I could say is just hard work, be dedicated to what you’re doing,” McCullers said. “Keep your head in the books, that’s the biggest thing. I had to go the junior college route. Not saying it wasn’t good for me, but going to Tennessee for all four years probably would have been great.

“Train hard, train every day, listen to your coaches and teachers learn from them. They’re telling you the right thing to do.”

Best: 919-524-8895; Twitter: @dclaybest

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