KNOXVILLE - Maurice Couch made the 18-hour drive to Knoxville from western Kansas this past weekend with more than just the things he packed on the moving truck.
The Garden City Community College defensive tackle carried with him the weight of possibly being the Tennessee Volunteers' most important 2011 signee. Through conversations this spring with Darin Hinshaw, UT's quarterbacks coach and one of Couch's primary recruiters, the 6-foot-2, 290-pound redshirt sophomore knows the situation.
"Coach Hinshaw's always reminding me, 'Coach [Derek] Dooley's always talking about you every day in the office, [asking] is he doing good?'" Couch said in a phone interview last week. "They're hoping for a lot from me coming in."
But Couch isn't alone. The Vols, still very much in the process of building depth and upgrading talent, will need a handful of players from the 2011 signing class to come in and contribute, and the group has plenty of candidates for early playing time on both sides of the ball.
While UT's coaches have their expectations for which new players may earn spots as starters, backups, specialized role players or special-teams guys, those hopes come with a caveat.
"One thing I've learned from being with Coach Dooley," defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said last month, "is to always go in with an open mind with new players, because sometimes you earmark guys to come in and be studs and it doesn't pan out. Sometimes you earmark guys who are going to redshirt, and they end up getting it and they're the stars.
"What we're going to do is take it one day at a time and it's going to be a process, and hopefully as time goes on the cream will rise to the top. That'll be a good thing for everybody involved."
Recruits make the transition from high school or junior college to a university in differing degrees, on and off the field, so coaches have to temper their enthusiasm about individual prospects, no matter how well they know them.
"I'm excited about all of them and all their opportunities," defensive line coach Lance Thompson said. "I'm not putting any expectations on any of them: They've got to come in, learn the system, get used to the school as far as academics and socially."
The Vols had to play a number of freshmen last season and redshirted only six players from the 2010 class. Given how the 2011 class, at least on paper, met needs in terms of positions, size and speed, that number doesn't figure to be much higher this season. But as important as the newcomers are to UT's plans, they're just part of the equation.
"The guys that are here, this is going to be the core of our team, and we need them to improve and continue to get better," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "Those guys that are coming in this summer and fall, we need [them] to supplement our team right now, and we're going to count on some of those guys to supplement us - and some more than others."
Couch fits into that "more" category, along with junior college defensive backs Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier, linebacker A.J. Johnson, defensive end Curt Maggitt, tight end Cameron Clear, receivers Vincent Dallas and DeAnthony Arnett and any of the five offensive linemen UT signed.
The Vols left spring with converted offensive lineman Daniel Hood, converted end Corey Miller, former walk-on Joseph Ayres and the disappointing Montori Hughes behind Malik Jackson on the depth chart at defensive tackle, which means Couch, if he can live up to his elevated billing, has a legitimate chance to be a starter from the beginning.
"I'm confident about my athletic ability. I feel I can come in and bring a lot," said Couch, whose girlfriend gave birth to their daughter in April. "The coaches, they've been having trouble with the D-line since last year, so I feel like I can come in and fit right in. I play out here against a lot of guys that are going Division I. I'm ready to come in and make an impact right away."
Junior college players almost always are expected to provide immediate contributions. UT struck gold with a junior college defensive tackle in 2004 when the late Jesse Mahelona was an All-American his first year on campus. The Vols tried for that again last year with John Brown, but he wasn't able to get eligible academically.
"You never really know until they get there," Wilcox said. "You get to know the kid as a person, what he's about, you watch his tape over and over - and this is for every recruit - and you're thinking, 'OK, you're not going to recruit him if you don't think he can come in right now and help you, especially junior college players.'
"With that said, [Couch is] a big kid and he's got athletic ability. We think he's got a good way about him, so we expect him to come in here and give us something. How much we'll find out, but we hope."
Couch has high aspirations of his own - to help UT reach the Southeastern Conference title game and become an All-American.
"They hope I come in and step right in and be a leader and contribute to the defensive line," he said. "We have great potential to be really good up front, and we're just missing one piece, and that's where I come in. When I leave Knoxville, I want to be remembered. I don't want to be just a guy who came in, played and left."