KNOXVILLE-Montori Hughes' disappointing sophomore season spilled over into this offseason.
Violating team rules forced Tennessee's big defensive tackle to miss the Volunteers' first two practices of spring, but now he's trying to make up for lost time, put his underachieving 2010 campaign behind him and aid a defensive line still looking for quality depth.
"Of course, I didn't do near as good as I wanted to [last season]," the 6-foot-4, 327-pound Hughes said Saturday after UT's fourth spring workout. "I've got a lot of improvement to do, so that's what I'm going to do each and every day out here - just to get better so I can get where I want to be. I've got to work harder than I did last year and work on the little things and get better."
Part of Hughes' struggles last season were due to a stinger and two ankle injuries, but some of his problems were his own performance. Malik Jackson moved from end to tackle and redshirt freshman Joseph Ayres passed Hughes in the rotation by season's end.
Hughes was suspended for the regular-season finale against Kentucky.
"He's been good. He did a good job of staying in shape," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "He's gotten a little stronger, but he's a little behind because he's missed a lot of work with the team. Everybody who plays defensive tackle, it's important that they develop because we don't really have anything close to what we need."
Though Jackson was a pleasant surprise, Ayres held his own and Marlon Walls battled back to 100 percent from an Achilles' tendon injury, the Vols still are still thin in the middle of the line. Hughes' progress on and off the field and four-star junior college signee Maurice Couch's summer arrival could solidify that area by September.
"As a whole D-line we are thin," Hughes said, "but we're working each and every day to get better and do our jobs and perfect our jobs."
UT isn't much better off at end. Both Rae Sykes and Steven Fowlkes, who went from end to tackle last season, have been working at end this week to provide depth behind Corey Miller, Jacques Smith and Willie Bohannon.
"More reps for everybody," the 6-3, 260-pound Miller said. "Everybody's got to take advantage of the opportunity and just work hard. We're competing."
The Vols also are giving redshirt freshman linebacker Martaze Jackson, who arrived near the end of preseason camp last August after waiting to be cleared academically, a look at end this week.
"It feels natural because I played it in high school, so it's just getting the fundamentals back down," said Jackson, who's up to 240 pounds after setting foot on campus at 205. "That's all I'm working on. Once I lock that in it'll just come easy to me. I've been waiting on this for a long time. They've put me in a position to show myself, so that's what I'm trying to do."
What Hughes is trying to do is regain the form he showed in 2009 as a freshman out of Siegel High School in Murfreesboro and the first two games of last season, when he made seven of his 17 tackles.
But for now, he's just glad to be back healthy.
"This is what I love doing - getting on the field, playing football and having fun," Hughes said. "It felt good to get back out with the boys."