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A leaner Daniel McCullers looking to be a difference maker on the 2015 Steelers defense

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It is hard to fathom a human being at 355 pounds being leaner, but that is the case with Daniel McCullers as he prepares for the 2015 season. Fact remains, McCullers doesn't just want to be a backup, he wants to be a difference maker.

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By Dale Grdnic

PITTSBURGH -- With Pittsburgh Steelers mini-camp ending this week, second-year nose tackle Daniel McCullers will face his biggest challenge.

Not facing All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey in one more practice, but bracing for a trip home to Raleigh, N.C. to face his grandmother's sweet potato pie.

I want to eat healthy, but my grandma cooks a great sweet potato pie,'' McCullers said. "So, I might have a little bit of that. But I have to stay away from it, for the most part, and a lot of other good food that she cooks.''

At 6-foot-7 and 355 pounds, McCullers is still the answer to the question: "Where's the beef on the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line?'' But the second-year nose tackle has done his best to be a much leaner cut this year.

"I've tried to eat right and keep my body in shape, but it's not easy,'' McCullers said. "You have to keep in good shape, because it's a long, grueling season and you won't make it to the end if you're not in shape.''

McCullers has sliced some 10-15 pounds off his big body, which swelled to more than 400 pounds during his high school years, but Steelers stellar defensive end Cam Heyward has noticed even more improvements.

"I would say that his get-off is a lot better, and his conditioning is a lot better,'' Heyward said. "He has a better grasp of the playbook, so we're looking for him to make a big jump this year. I expect him to be the backup to Steve McLendon, and I don't expect a drop-off when he replaces Steve in a game.''

Steelers long-time defensive line coach John Mitchell expects a great deal from the players in his room, and former sixth-round pick McCullers is no different.

"He's a guy down there when it's go time, big nickel, he'll be one of the guys we have in there,'' Mitchell said. "But you've got to have guys that can rush the pass and what you have with your bigger guys, a lot of those guys are first- and second-down players. And that's all that we're going to get out of them. (But) with the people that we have coming back, that should not be a factor.''

McCullers said that while playing collegiately at Tennessee prepared him for a lot of what he would face in the NFL, he still was not ready for the extensive up-tick in the speed of the game at the next level. The NFL game is much more mentally driven, so much more pre-game preparation is needed.

"I'm progressing pretty good,'' McCullers said. "I've been working hard to learn the system, and I'm doing much better since last year. I'm getting much more used to it, and I feel like I'm adjusting well so far in my second season. So, I just have to continue to work on my technique and my conditioning.

"You need to have the system and all the plays down from the beginning or it's going to be tough for you, so your preparation is the biggest thing. It was a great learning experience, what it takes to get ready for each game, learning the game plan and getting prepared to compete at a high level.''

Many believe that McCullers' playing time will increase this season as Steve McLendon's backup at nose tackle, but that the second-year pro eventually will displace the veteran in the middle of the Steelers defensive line.

"Coach Mitch wants a lot out of me this year, and I want a lot more out of myself,'' McCullers said. "I plan on coming through for Coach Mitch, my teammates and this team. If I get my technique down much better, I'll earn more snaps, but it definitely is up to me.''

McCullers made just two tackles as an NFL rookie, including one solo stop, in nine regular-season games and one playoff contest with one start.