"The first day I got here we had a workout at 6 in the morning, and he was really struggling," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin recalled. "Later, I said, 'What do we do with that big guy?' I figured he's a young guy, we'll redshirt him or grayshirt him and he'll be a player someday."
Fortunately for Tennessee's football program, "someday" arrived within a matter of weeks. As Hughes worked his way into shape he began exhibiting more stamina and athleticism. By the time he took the field for spring practice, the chunky kid was looking an awful lot like a full-grown man.
"I think that's been the big surprise," Kiffin said. "He just kept getting in better and better shape. Then we put the pads on – he loves football – and he became very aggressive. He's going to help us."
He may even start. With end/tackle Wes Brown sidelined by knee problems, Hughes got a lot of practice reps with the first-team defense the last half of spring drills. If he has a great preseason camp he'll start at the tackle opposite Dan Williams, with Brown manning the end opposite Chris Walker. If Ben Martin has a great preseason camp he'll start opposite Walker, with Brown manning the tackle spot opposite Williams.
Whether he starts or comes off the bench, Montori Hughes has established that he'll be a key figure in Tennessee's defensive tackle rotation this fall. Still, Kiffin cautions fans not to expect too much of a young man who remains somewhat rough around the edges.
"A lot of it is new," the coordinator said. "Every snap you take, everything's coming from a different direction, so he still needs a lot of work."
That's true, but the fact Hughes is learning from seniors Williams and Brown should hasten his progress considerably. That's particularly true of Williams, who also has struggled with his stamina and conditioning.
"Dan Williams went from 338 (pounds) when we got here to 313," Kiffin noted. "He really bought in because he can't play that heavy. He's a better player now."
Tennessee certainly needs Williams at his best because he and Brown and Hughes are the Vols' only dependable tackles. Victor Thomas, Chase Nelson and Andre Mathis have yet to prove themselves capable of providing SEC-level tackle play.
"Our defensive ends are probably a little stronger position right now than our tackles," Kiffin conceded. "We still need to improve there with our players who are here and maybe get an incoming player or two, especially inside.
"We've gotten better but we still could use some more depth."