NASHVILLE — To understand the sort of player Tennessee is getting in Daniel Bituli, one need only learn of his high school football playoff exploits at Nashville Christian last season.
Bituli, a chiseled 6-foot-3, 235-pound Congo native slated to play linebacker for the Vols, reported to campus this week as UT’s highest-rated in-state prospect in the 2016 class.
“I’ll do whatever the team needs,” said Bituli, a four-star prospect ranked as the 216th-best player in the nation and No. 3 prep player in the Volunteer State. “Coach (Butch) Jones knows where he’s going with the team, and he’s a winner.
“I love that about him, because I hate losing, so I’m excited to go to a program that loves winning.”
That competitive drive led to Bituli feeling frustrated as he entered the halftime locker room at Nashville Christian’s regional championship game against Trousdale County last season.
The game was tied 0-0, unacceptable for Bituli’s Eagles’ team, as it was averaging six touchdowns per game entering the contest.
Bituli, whose family moved to the U.S. when he was 3 years old, sensed it was time for him to deliver a halftime message to his teammates.
“I knew I could do better, myself, and I said so,” Bituli said. “I let the guys know we’re not just playing for ourselves, and we needed to play like Nashville Christian plays, and that’s strong, physical and fast on offense and defense.
“I felt like everyone listened because we all knew we needed to get the job done.”
Bituli’s final words in the locker room were private variety, to his head coach, Jeff Brothers.
“Daniel said he’d like to run the ball if we needed him to,” Brothers said. “Daniel, being an unselfish guy, was a blocking back most all season. But he came to me in a calm, level-headed manner and said, ‘Coach, I’ll run the ball.’ “
And run he did, scoring two touchdowns on bursts of 13 and 40 yards as the Eagles erupted for 43 points in the third quarter en route to securing a No. 1 regional seed that paved the way for a state championship.
“I just wanted to run North and South a little bit,” Bituli said, suppressing a smile.
Bituli’s powerful running also kick-started the state title win over Greenback ,42-14. Bituli opened the scoring with a 41-yard TD run less than five minutes into the Class 1A BlueCross Bowl title game at Tucker Stadium at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville.
Bituli finished last season with 15 carries for 283 yards (18.9 ypc) and seven TDs, while making 47 tackles with 43 assists and 20 tackles for loss from his linebacker position on defense.
He’d come a long way from his freshman season, when he was still learning the game.
Brothers said Bituli’s mix of great athleticism and high football IQ enabled him to use the four-star prospect in a variety of ways at Nashville Christian.
“Daniel is so strong and fast with so much talent, but he partners that with a tremendous work ethic,” Brothers said. “He wants to constantly learn and be dependable for his teammates.
“We had him at middle linebacker, at the Will (weak side linebacker), and we’d put him on the line at times, too,” Brothers said. “He was so powerful and fast, he could make plays running people down, and of course he was difficult to block.”
Bituli — who rushed for 1,800 yards as a sophomore before his focus shifted to defense — said he turned a corner at middle linebacker when he started watching more film.
“Once I was able to understand what I was looking for on film, it was like watching ESPN, I enjoy it that much,” Bituli said. “Progressively, over the years, I took it upon myself to understand it all and teach it to my teammates.”
In addition to being a workout wonder — he squats more than 600 pounds — Bituli starred in other sports as well.
As a junior he gave wrestling a try and finished fifth in the state.
“It was very different, just the conditioning,” Bituli said. “You go hard for a good two minutes each round, and it’s crazy. It seems like centuries out there.”
Bituli also won the Class 1A/2A state championship in the shot put last Friday in Murfreesboro with a throw of 51-11.
“Tennessee’s just getting a humble, hard-working guy,” Brothers said. “He’s not into all the big-time attention, whether it’s the Atlanta Journal-Constitution or recruiting rankings. We had a tight-knit group of 15 years, and Daniel was just one of the guys.”
Bituli said what others see as a modest and humble approach is really just him putting his family and religion at the top of his priorities.
“The only reason I’m in the position I am now is because of Jesus Christ, and I know the only way I will succeed in life and go further is to stay in contact with God and have a good relationship with him,” Bituli said.
“Being able to have a good relationship with God teaches you a lot of things from having self discipline to working hard, and if I have God on my side, who can go against me?”
All ratings are from the 247Sports composite rankings unless otherwise noted