KNOXVILLE — Conventional wisdom has dictated for decades that freshmen were typically too small to contribute on the line in Southeastern Conference football.
Most freshman don’t look like Montori Hughes.
At 6-foot-4, 312 pounds with tree-trunk arms and legs, Hughes looks more like a player with several years’ experience in the University of Tennessee’s weight room.
He arrived at UT in January. The Murfreesboro native spent last fall in prep school, but he won’t turn 19 until Aug. 25., just before the Volunteers open their season against Western Kentucky.
“That kid, man, he’s a monster,” Vols defensive end Chris Walker said of Hughes. “There’s going to be something really special for him down the road.”
Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron lights up when asked about Hughes — a little-known recruit that former UT coach Phillip Fulmer plucked just before 2008 national signing day.
The day Hughes signed, though, national recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg called him a “potential star” who inexplicably avoided the national radar.
“That kid’s a heck of a player that we obviously missed on early, there’s no question about it,” Newberg told the Times Free Press that night. “Right now, to me, he may be the best prospect in the state when it’s all said and done. And we just flat missed him. That’s hard to do today, just miss a guy like that, but we did. He’s a great pickup.”
Hughes — who, as a freshman, has not been made available to reporters — is far from a finished product. He’s not an experienced tactician in the trenches, but he’s overcome several obstacles this spring by simply shoving them aside.
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said Hughes and converted defensive end Wes Brown made him feel “a lot better than I did a few weeks ago” about UT’s tackle situation. Defensive tackle is often considered one of the most vital positions on the field, and it’s almost always referenced as the toughest position to evaluate, sign and develop solid players.
“For a young guy, 18 years old, (Hughes) is a force in there,” Kiffin said after Saturday’s scrimmage at Neyland Stadium. “And he’s just going to get better and better every day, because he’s got a great attitude.”
Hughes provided one of Saturday’s most impressive highlights late in the scrimmage, bulling through the offensive line and leaping well off the ground to deflect a B.J. Coleman screen pass.
“I’m just glad he’s on our side,” Coleman said. “It’s hard to believe he’s just a freshman.”
First-year head coach Lane Kiffin offered the highest praise for Hughes, comparing him to one of Saturday’s biggest, wealthiest guests — NFL All-Pro defensive tackle, former UT star and current Knoxville resident Albert Haynesworth.
“Montori again was just dominant,” Lane Kiffin said. “I think there was a pretty big guy on the sideline named Haynesworth. I saw those two guys around each other. They’re built about the same.
“(Hughes) was unblockable today. We played him in a lot of head-up techniques where he was just knocking the guard back, the same thing they did with Albert at Tennessee. It was pretty cool, I thought, to see him dominate like that and to see the best in the world 10 yards away watching him.”
UT is scheduled to practice Tuesday and Thursday this week, ahead of another Saturday scrimmage. Spring will wrap up with April 18’s Orange and White game.