In the fall of 2006, Garrett Hughes came to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as a walk-on wide receiver. Now, on the eve of what could be the fifth-year senior's final game at Finley Stadium, he is a vital part of the Mocs' offense.
"We can't function without him," offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield said. "If you want us to go in the jar pretty quick offensively, just kidnap him. He does everything for us."
The 6-foot-4 Hughes, who has filled out over the years and now weighs 225 pounds, was moved to tight end in the spring of 2009. He made an immediate impact in the 2009 season opener, catching a 73-yard touchdown pass, and finished with 17 receptions for 244 yards.
Despite a bad shoulder, Hughes has 22 catches this season for 308 yards and five touchdowns. Mocs coach Russ Huesman said he's "the most underrated guy on our football team and probably the most underrated guy" in the Southern Conference.
The Mocs (5-4, 4-2) host Samford (4-5, 2-4) in a must-win game Saturday, and Hughes is one of 11 players who will be recognized on senior day - the 10 seniors and redshirt junior Ryan Geist, who will not play next season.
When he came to UTC, Hughes hoped someday to be a contributing member of the team. He said the fact that he's done that, and more, means a lot to him.
"I'd say that's one of the things I'll take out of college that I'm most proud of is that I went from a walk-on to a special teams player to getting put on full scholarship and being a starter, being a big part of our offense," he said. "That's something I'm very proud of, something I worked real hard to achieve."
Hughes has the speed and athleticism of a wide receiver, which gave him an advantage when he moved to tight end, but it took some time for him to get a grip on the blocking aspects of his new position.
"I watch film of myself [from last season] and I look like a totally different player," he said. "One, I'm bigger. Two, I just have so much more experience now and I know how to play the position."
You might think that Joel Bradford, who is fourth in the FCS with 70 receptions, has the best hands on the team. But Satterfield said Hughes' are better.
"He's got the best hands on the team, and that's including Joel," Satterfield said, "and Joel can get mad at me if he wants to."
Hughes said he got a little bit of scholarship money before the 2008 season, received 50 percent last season and Huesman gave him a full scholarship this year.
Getting that full scholarship, Hughes said, was a testament to the progress he's made since showing up as a wide-eyed walk-on from Lawrenceburg five years ago.
"It was gratifying to see that I'd made it that far, and my goal was to become a starter," he said. "It took me moving positions for it to happen, and when it happened I've just been trying to get better and better."
Freshman Faysal Shafaat, who is redshirting this season, likely will take Hughes' place next season. Shafaat is 6-5, 235 pounds and Satterfield said he's shown flashes in practice that he could be even better than Hughes.
"The only thing is, can he get Garrett's heart? Can he get Garrett's mental capacity and understanding and feel for the game?" Satterfield said. "That remains to be seen."
Satterfield said Wednesday that J.J. Jackson will start at running back Saturday. When informed Thursday that UTC is 0-4 when Jackson starts, Huesman said someone else will be out there. ... Backup linebacker Wes Dothard (concussion) practiced Thursday and will play. Starting linebacker Gunner Miller is still out with a shoulder injury.