KNOXVILLE -- When Maurice Couch steps onto the University of Tennessee campus in a few months, he'll do so with higher expectations than the rest of the recruiting class joining him.
That's fine for Couch, a 6-foot-3, 290-pound defensive tackle out of Garden City (Kan.) Community College, who's well aware he's expected to make an immediate impact at a position that needs it.
In a phone interview on national signing day, Coach said the Volunteers coaches "talked to me about it a lot. Because the team was so young, they wanted me to come in and be a leader and keep some of the younger guys focused and help the D-line.
"The coaches really didn't put any pressure on me. They told me that the recruiting class was surrounded around me. They told me I was the most important get in the recruiting class. I'm thankful that they're putting me in this position and giving me this chance."
Given his ability -- he's rated a four-star prospect by Rivals.com and a five-star player by 247sports.com -- and UT's dire situation at defensive tackle last season, Couch might be the Vols' most important signee of this class.
After Marlon Walls ruptured his Achilles' tendon early in preseason camp, UT moved Victor Thomas over from center and slid undersized defensive end Malik Jackson inside, where he flourished.
Montori Hughes struggled with inconsistency and injuries, and even walk-on Joseph Ayres, a former standout at McCallie, broke into the rotation.
"We targeted Maurice Couch back in February, the first time I saw his film," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "We were very fortunate: Our coaching staff did a great job with him because we felt like we needed some junior college help."
Needing to shore up a secondary that at times didn't have enough healthy bodies to play nickel and dime packages in passing situations, the Vols went back to the junior college level to sign defensive backs Byron Moore and Izaeua Lanier.
Moore transferred out of Southern Cal last July as a redshirt freshman and landed at Los Angeles Harbor Community College. Lanier signed with Auburn out of high school but wound up at East Mississippi Community College. Both players are rated as four-star prospects by Rivals.
"I've said from the beginning we're not going to build our program on junior college players," Dooley said, "so when we do go after them, it's going to be a significant position of need and they're the right kinds of guys.
"I think the best statement about these guys is all three of them have three years of eligibility, which is important to me because it gives them time to buy into the culture and gives them that extra year on the back end where they really can be great players."
Couch, who was recruited by quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw and defensive line coach Chuck Smith, committed to the Vols after his official visit in November. He said he knew he was going to UT in October but needed someone else to see where he would spend his future.
"I knew I was going to go to UT because of Coach Hinshaw and Coach Smith," he said. "I have a baby on the way and I wanted my girlfriend to see [UT]. I wanted to her to see everything, the campus, and make sure they have everything for her also.
"Everything turned out well. Any time I have any issues or anything, the coaches are going to take care of me and my family."
After signing officially with UT at a quiet ceremony in Garden City on Wednesday, Couch faces his most difficult task -- waiting to get to Knoxville.
"The coaches, they're not like those uptight coaches," he said. "They're all laid-back and chill. Those are my type of people; they're a big family. When I went on my visit, I just felt like I was home. I was very humbled.
"Just playing in the SEC and my chance of playing, man, the D-line [reputation] that UT used to have, that's what we're trying to bring back next year. I wanted to be a part of that. I'm just ready to get there now."
Couch joined Allan Carson (Oxford, Ala.) and Trevarris Saulsberry (Gainesville, Fla.) as defensive tackles in UT's 2011 class. The Vols also brought in Jordan Williams (Gainesville, Fla.) and Curt Maggitt (West Palm Beach, Fla.) at end, where UT lost Chris Walker and Gerald Williams.
Junior end Ben Martin, who also ruptured an Achilles' tendon in preseason camp, returns along with Corey Miller and former Ooltewah star Jacques Smith. At tackle, Jackson is back with Hughes and a healthy Walls.
"We have three really big-bodied guys and two more edge guys," Dooley said, "and that's what we needed. I think it'll promote a lot of competition."
"With me playing in the middle and sometimes on the edge," Couch said, "we'll be strong up front next year. We have a nice recruiting class and the guys returning, so I think we've got a lot of big plans next year."