Cole is one of manager Martin Johnson’s two changes from the team that beat Wales last weekend, with Riki Flutey replacing Toby Flood at inside centre following his recovery from injury.
The 22-year-old, who came off the bench on Saturday, comes in for David Wilson at tight-head as England prepare to do battle with a formidable Italian front row.
This time last year Cole was on loan at first division Nottingham, but has shot to prominence in a breakthrough season at Welford Road.
“This is a big surprise because at the start of the year I wouldn’t have expected it,” said Cole.
“At the start of the season my goal would have been to establish myself in the Leicester side and become a reliable player that Cockers [Leicester boss Richard Cockerill] trusts.
“You are not going to play for England unless you are playing for your club and so that was my aim at the beginning of the season.”
England scrum coach Graham Rowntree, who has long known Cole, is confident he has the attributes to manage with a stern test in Rome on his first international start.
“His temperament is his strength,” said Rowntree. “He is tough but doesn’t go around banging his chest. We did think twice about playing him against Italy but we will take that chance because I know Dan can do it.
“He did a great job coming on against Wales last week and I have every confidence in him.”