KNOXVILLE - The University of Tennessee defensive line Chuck Smith coach was clearly contemplating how to temper his response to this simple question: "How good can Jacques Smith be?"
"You know ... he just ... he has the potential to be a top-5 pick in the NFL," Chuck Smith said of his prized prospect, a 6-foot-2, 248-pound freshman from Ooltewah High School.
"I hate to say that about a true freshman, but it is what it is," the coach continued. "He's just special."
Jacques Smith arrived in Knoxville with every measurable skill. He has a "shredded" physique, as Chuck Smith calls it. He could run. He could jump. He could strike with his hands, breeze past an offensive lineman and explode to the quarterback.
"Technique comes and goes, but people who play with that dog in them - people like Leonard Little, like Al Wilson, like Raynoch Thompson - those are the kind of guys we want," Chuck Smith said. "We want tough guys here. All that pretty, sexy stuff just gets you in the position we're in now. We want dogs. We want guys that hunt..'
"He's a kid that's young now, but that dog is going to come out of him."
And he's getting more and more chances to show that. He played more than 30 snaps in last week's double-overtime win over UAB, and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said that number will grow.
"Jacques is just ... the guy shows up on tape," Wilcox said. "He shows up in practice, and he shows up in games, just how hard he plays. He would be the first to tell you he's not 100 percent on (knowing) what he's doing technique-wise, but the guy goes 1,000 miles an hour, and he'll hit you. And that's what we need right now, is people that are doing that. And he keeps doing that.
"The more he plays, the better and better he's going to get. We'll continue to push the envelope with him on what he's doing. In a perfect world, you know, a guy like that is playing 10 to 20 to 30 snaps. But for us, he's a guy that's going to play more and more and more."
And the player has no problem with that plan, even if that means occasionally playing out of position at tackle in pass-rushing situations.
"I really just want to play wherever I can get on the field," said Smith, who consumes 6,000 calories every day to avoid slipping below 240 pounds. "Being a freshman, it's kind of a blessing to even be out there right now. I know I'm really blessed, because a lot of freshmen out there in the country - even ones that were better than me coming out of high school - they're not even playing right now and getting redshirted, so it's just amazing how I'm getting out there."
Necessary? No question.
UT's coaches don't have many options with their depth-depleted roster.
"We've got what we've got," first-year head coach Derek Dooley said.
That's not to say Dooley and his staff mind playing Jacques Smith play, though.
"I could go on and on about him," Wilcox said. "The kid is driven to be successful. He does things the right way. Off the field, he handles himself with maturity beyond his years, and he really wants to be a good football player, and he buys into what you're telling him.
"He's got a lot of room to grow. His best football is still ahead of him, no doubt, but we're excited about him."
And Smith is excited about his future as a Vol, despite an inauspicious start to his career.
Smith was one of nine players to commit to former UT head coach Lane Kiffin, graduate early from high school and enroll in January. Eight of the nine - all but defensive tackle Brandon Willis - arrived just in time for chaos. Kiffin, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron left for Southern California, and hundreds of UT students surrounded the football complex to protest the hasty departure.
Eight of the nine early enrollees - all but Willis - stayed in school for a few weeks before meeting Dooley and staying on board with the Vols.
Smith, a lifelong UT fan, had always dreamed of playing in Neyland Stadium. But he was also comfortable with LSU (and former Vols) defensive coordinator John Chavis, and the Tigers never stopped recruiting him, so he went home after Kiffin bolted and thought about becoming a Bayou Bengal.
"Initially, if we didn't get a good head coach that I was comfortable with, I was going to LSU," Smith said. "Then Coach Dooley was named, and then I talked to him on the phone and everything kind of hit off from there, and I came back here immediately."
For a while, though, Smith admitted he felt "very close" to leaving for LSU.
"But I felt like (Dooley) was the right guy," he added. "I felt really comfortable with him, and I liked the vision he had for the University of Tennessee and moving forward from what Coach Kiffin had, and it looked a lot better than what Coach Kiffin had when he was here."
UT's staff couldn't be more pleased with his choice. Chuck Smith said Jacques could be "anything he wants to be" in the future - a big end, a pass-rushing end, a middle linebacker or a hybrid of all those positions.
Wilcox said he'll "continue building" the freshman's already-versatile role. Chuck Smith half-jokingly said it might be easier to find a front-seven spot Jacques couldn't play.
"He reminds me of Joey Porter or Brian Orakpo - guys that are 6-2, shredded, explosive," Chuck Smith said. "I hate talking about him like this, because, dang, he's got three more years, and you never know what's going to happen in three years. But right now, he's everything you look for in a player."
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesrucker or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.