This sleeper's a keeper

Freshmen whose greatest high school honor was second-team All-Midstate don't make much impact on Tennessee's football program ... especially after missing a season of competition.

So, the fact unheralded rookie Montori Hughes already worked his way into contention for a starting job at defensive tackle has surprised a lot of people ... including Hughes himself.

"It was a shock to me," he said recently. "I just came in and tried to make a little noise. I wanted to try to get on the field as fast as I can. It's a great defense, so I just wanted to try my hardest and do my best."

Hughes' best wasn't very good last winter. Unable to enroll in 2008 due to academic issues, the 6-4, 312-pound Murfreesboro native spent the fall semester in prep school. He was grossly out of shape when he belatedly joined the Vol program in January and, as a result, Tennessee's offseason conditioning program nearly wrecked him.

"When I first got here I wasn't in the best shape," he conceded. "I was last (in running drills) or falling out. I had to buy in to what the coaches were saying and doing, get in shape and get better."

To the surprise of many observers, Hughes needed very little time to get in shape. Once he upgraded his conditioning and stamina, he turned some heads with his strong play in spring practice.

"Spring practice helped a lot," he said. "I learned a lot of stuff. It was a lot different from high school. There was a lot of stuff that I didn't know from high school. Now I know it, and that's made me a better player."

Tennessee desperately needs him to play well because defensive tackle is the Vols' weakest position. Two of the top three D-tackles from 2008, Demonte Bolden and Walter Fisher, are out of eligibility. Senior Wes Brown is limited by two bad knees. Chase Nelson, Victor Thomas and Andre Mathis are career underachievers. Rae Sykes is in his first full week at tackle after moving over from end. Arthur Jeffery is coming off a torn ACL and fellow freshman Marlon Walls is two weeks behind after missing the start of fall camp with Clearinghouse issues.

All of the above leaves the Big Orange with one dependable tackle, senior Dan Williams. Thus, Montori Hughes qualifies as a godsend. He has the potential to elevate the Vols' D-tackle outlook from bleak to adequate. Still, he downplays his role.

"It's a great defense already," he said. "I just think I can bring a little extra excitement to the defense."

Hughes calls defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin "a great coach" but concedes that line coach Ed Orgeron "has helped me the most. If I listen to him he'll make me a better player."

Hughes also is getting considerable advice from Dan Williams.

"He's a senior, and he knows what it takes to play in the SEC as a defensive lineman," Hughes said. "I listen to him and look up to him, try to do what I see him do, because I know he's going to lead me the right way."

Ultimately, Montori Hughes is a real-life rags-to-riches story. A lightly regarded sleeper when he arrived on campus last January, he now looms as one of Tennessee's key contributors. Best of all, he's determined to keep getting better.

"I think I've come a long way from where I was at but I've still got a long way to go," he said. "There's a lot of stuff I don't know. I've got things to learn and get better at, so that's what I'm working on."

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