KNOXVILLE - The jump from Kansas junior college football to the Southeastern Conference has opened Maurice Couch's eyes.
The University of Tennessee defensive tackle admitted he's had some difficulty adjusting to the big leagues, but the excitement of doing what he calls a blessing has the 6-foot-2, 305-pound Couch working through the challenges.
"You're not expected to go against mediocre guys every snap like I did at JUCO," Couch said after Monday's practice in his first media appearance as a Vol. "It's really tough. I'd never thought I'd get to this level to be honest, but now that I'm here, it's a blessing. I thank God every day for being out here."
The learning curve of learning a more complicated playbook, practicing at a faster tempo and playing against bigger and better athletes has the potential to be greater than a freshman out of high school. That creates a difficult situation for junior-college players, who generally expected to provide immediate contribution because they're better developed physically.
"It's overwhelming, and sometimes even more so for the junior college guys, it's just a such a different experience, some of the high school programs prepare them better," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "The tempo, the amount of stuff they're required to learn but there are some positives that come back. These guys have it made when they're not on the field."
"I think he's shown exactly what we thought. I don't expect a lot. I'm happy he's here."
When Couch committed to UT last November out of Garden City (Kan.) Community College, he was considered one of the most important pieces of the class. Defensive tackle has long been a spot of trouble for the Vols, who recently have struggled developing quality depth at the position.
Plenty of hype and high expectations surrounded Couch's arrival, but the coaching staff has said publicly they just hope for Couch to come in and work hard. He's learning nose tackle and three-technique, both of the Vols' defensive tackle positions. Though he's been getting help from fellow linemen Malik Jackson and Marlon Walls, Couch has learned this high level of football requires more work.
"Here it's every day, all day, even when you have time off, you need to hit the books, get in there and learn both nose and tackle," he said. "I'm trying to do as best as I can to help the team. It's nothing about me, it's all about the team."
Couch, who gained 10 pounds since his arrival in June, still has plenty of improvement to do to solidify a spot in what figures to be a crowded defensive-line rotation.
"The food has just overwhelmed him, how good we eat here," Dooley said. "He was in the cafeteria saying, 'Coach I'm so glad to be out of "the Juke."' I told him so far we've given you all of this and you really haven't given us anything back. He's got a long way to go from a conditioning standpoint and it's kind of baby steps, but he has good ability and he's going to help us."
The Vols' first scrimmage of preseason camp is scheduled for this afternoon. Dooley said it's an important evaluation tool for his staff as they attempt to determine who will play where with so much competition at a number of positions.
Defensive end Ben Martin is coming off two ruptured Achilles' tendons in the last 12 months, but Dooley had positive words for the fifth-year senior on Monday.
"I see a big defensive end that we haven't had since I've been here, and that's going to help us," he said. "We're still baby-stepping him. I think he's had some residual pain [because] it just takes your body awhile to recognize what you're doing."
Dooley said he had no resolution yet on which freshman would grayshirt. The coach said last week either Tino Thomas or Geraldo Orta, both defensive backs who are coming off offseason shoulder surgeries, would be the Vols' 80th and final player on scholarship. Dooley said the latest he would know something would be Aug. 17, the start of fall classes at UT.
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