KNOXVILLE — Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley called the Volunteers' matchup with Florida a "headbutt" game.
That's welcome news for the Vols' biggest player.
Nose tackle Daniel McCullers' impact has been limited by the offensive style of 23rd-ranked Tennessee's first two opponents, but the 18th-ranked Gators are more of the pro-style downhill-running team for which the 6-foot-7, 360-pound junior-college transfer was signed.
"They're going to need me in the middle because they like to run a lot," McCullers said earlier this week. "I'm going to be the big presence in the middle and help stop the run. We're going to be ready for it.
"It's a big game, and they're a power running team, so I'll be happy to get my snaps and go hard every play."
Tennessee's big man should be well-rested for the Gators. McCullers isn't a pass-rush specialist, so he played just 20 snaps against North Carolina State in the Vols' opener. That snap count dropped to eight against Georgia State's spread offense last week.
McCullers said he expects to get plenty more work Saturday night, and the quiet giant will try to discover the mean streak defensive line coach John Palermo has been trying to get out of him.
"His demeanor hasn't changed," Palermo said. "He's just an easygoing kid. We've got to sometimes light a little fire under his tail, but I expect he'll come out and do the best he can do.
"I can't do it. He's the guy that's got to do it. You can only scream and holler to a point, and it's got to come down to he's got to be the guy that wants to do it."
Finally getting the chance to make a significant impact should be enough for McCullers. Florida's Mike Gillislee is the Southeastern Conference's leading rusher through two weeks, and the 5-foot-11, 209-pounder scored the winning touchdown in the Gators' tough road win at Texas A&M last week. The Gators also lead the SEC in time of possession.
Keeping Florida from finding a groove with its clock-chewing ground game is important for Tennessee's defense, and McCullers plays a big role in that.
"He's a real great part to our defense," said linebacker A.J. Johnson, another player relishing the physical challenge Florida's offense presents. "He's got good size, he's big and he can take up a lot of players. I ain't see no frustrations out of him."
Palermo was proud of how his line "cleaned up" a number of mistakes from the N.C. State game, and he's eager to see how Tennessee's front handles a more physical challenge.
"Whether we're ready or not, we'll find out on Saturday," he said. "We're preparing to play well, and it's just going to be a matter of when the whistle blows and the ball's snapped, who's going to be the more physical line: their offensive line or our defensive line? I've seen a lot of positive things ... but we've still got a long ways to go."
Dooley believes his defense is better suited against an offense like this, where the offensive line comes in aiming to impose its will and wear down a defense.
"Now whether we'll be any better, we'll see," said Tennessee's third-year coach. "I just say more suited because we've got more guys and they're bigger. But it doesn't mean we're going to play better."
For McCullers, simply playing is an opportunity to which he's looking forward. His conditioning will be tested, as Saturday is likely to be the highest number of snaps he's played in his brief Tennessee career. The more he's able to stay on the field, the more chances he'll have to do the dirty job of taking on double- and triple-teams and clogging up the middle of the field.
"I feel like I'm ready now," he said, "but I'm going to continue to work hard to get even better so we can dominate like we're supposed to."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...