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June 4, 2014

Steelers NT McCullers faces tall task

PITTSBURGH — The numbers next to Daniel McCullers’ name look out of place, at least for someone who’s trying to do what McCullers does for a living.

Nose tackles aren’t supposed to be 6-foot-7. When your job is to line up over the center and take up as much space as possible, the shorter – and wider – the better.

McCullers is neither. And he knows it.

Nicknamed everything from “Shade Tree” to “Green Mile” to “Mount McCullers” during his two years at Tennessee, the 21-year-old lineman understands he’s an oddity, a big man who stands out in a league full of them.

It’s a label McCullers can live with so long as he gets a chance to prove he’s more than just a 352-pound monolith.

“I still have a long way to go in terms of my technique and my craft,” McCullers said.

Maybe, but here’s the thing about the rookie sixth-round pick who weighed over 400 pounds while playing high school football in North Carolina: He’s smaller than you think.

For all of his eye-popping measurements, McCullers doesn’t look like someone more suited for professional wrestling than professional football. He is tall and thick but nowhere close to chunky. In a weird way, the largest player selected last month in the NFL draft is smaller than you think.

“I get that a lot,” McCullers said with a laugh.

Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward – who is two inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter than McCullers – likens his new teammate to folklore legend Paul Bunyan.

“I’m glad he’s on our side,” Heyward said. “His potential is through the roof.”

Even if McCullers doesn’t look much like the player he and half-dozen of his new teammates are trying to replace.

Pittsburgh’s typically sturdy run defense collapsed last year following the departure of five-time Pro Bowl player Casey Hampton. The Steelers finished outside of the top 10 in yards rushing allowed just once during the 6-1, 320-pound Hampton’s dozen years in the middle of the 3-4 defense. Pittsburgh slipped all the way to 21st in 2013 en route to an 8-8 season.

While McCullers will begin his career buried near the bottom of the depth chart behind veterans Steve McLendon and Cam Thomas, he happens to be playing for a team that values its lower round picks more than most. McCullers knows he’ll get an opportunity. All he has to do is seize it.

For now that means showing the coaching staff his body is built to handle the rigors of playing in the NFL. He is nimble for someone who has to shove his feet into size-18 shoes and hardly appeared winded while going through a series of drills during organized team activities on Wednesday.

“Running the ball is something they tell us after every meeting, run to the ball, get after the quarterback and running back,” McCullers said. “That was important for them to see for me so they could see I could move around like I was supposed to. I’m getting good at it.”

One of many things McCullers will have to excel at if he wants to stick around.

Though the Steelers remain high on him, McCullers is stuck with No. 74 – an offensive lineman’s number – rather than one in the 90s. Call it a casualty of a bloated 90-man roster that includes a dozen defensive linemen. McCullers raised his eyebrows when he first saw the jersey typically given to a long shot hanging in his locker, though the shock didn’t last long.

“I’ll take any number,” he said. “I wore 77 in high school and 78 in junior college. It’s kind of close ... If I just keep working hard and if they want to give me a better number, they can.”

McCullers is nothing if not adaptable. He bounced from high school to Georgia Military College to Tennessee, where he played for two head coaches and two different systems in as many years.

Though his numbers weren’t overwhelming last fall when he finished with 33 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t effective. All he needs to do on a given play is take up space. That’s never really been an issue.

“We’re not asking him to make every play,” Heyward said. “But we’re asking him to take up some blocks and make it easier for our linebackers.”

That’s fine by McCullers. Maybe one day he’ll take his massive arms and move to defensive end. Or maybe he’ll find a way to use his lengthy 79-inch frame with the same destructive force that made the decidedly squatter Hampton so dominant for so long.

“I just need to stay low,” McCullers said. “If I can keep low, keep my leverage. I know I can be a good player.”

Instead of just a big one.

Notes: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger returned to practice on Wednesday. Roethlisberger was excused from OTAs on Tuesday due to a personal matter. ... Pittsburgh signed free agent WR C.J. Goodwin on Wednesday and released WR Jasper Collins.

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