KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee defensive line coach Lance Thompson only had to think of where Maurice "Mo" Couch started his career to measure how far the sophomore defensive tackle has come.

"It's hard to describe how much Mo's improved," Thompson said Wednesday, "because his first practice he went one time through the bags and we didn't see him the rest of the day.

"In terms of just stamina, he's come a million miles."

Couch has progressed in other areas, too. The transfer from Garden City Community College in Kansas needed about half of his first season with the Volunteers to reach the level UT's coaching staff had hoped he would when it signed him in February. Not only has Couch started the last four games, but he's been disruptive in the middle of the Vols' defensive line.

"Like I've said all the time about Mo, he's got a great attitude, he works hard, he's appreciative, has gratitude for his opportunity here and this program's important to him," Thompson said. "He's getting better every day. He really works hard, does the things he needs to do, and he's come a long way."

The 6-foot-2, 305-pound Couch had five tackles and a sack in the loss at Arkansas two weeks ago and had six tackles, half a sack and two tackles for loss against Vanderbilt last week. He made just eight tackles in UT's first five games.

After arriving on campus with self-imposed aspirations of having an All-America season, Couch soon realized he'd need some time to adjust.

"How things started, I thought I was going to struggle a lot this year," he said. "I kept fighting through. I was really getting down on myself at first because I was like, 'Things are not going my way.' I just continued fighting, and I've been improving every week."

When he wasn't sure on specific plays or needed advice on certain techniques, Couch said he always asked or spoke up. That discipline was something he neither needed nor used in junior college, but his dedication changed.

"He wants to be a good player," Thompson said. "His game's very important to him, and he's a guy that's a solid guy. Some kids come out and they BS and make all these excuses why they don't have success or why they're not doing well. Mo understands.

"He'll say, 'Man, I messed up, Coach.' I tell him that's OK, understand your mistake and go to the next play. I'm really pleased with Mo, and we're glad he's doing better."

He might be doing more than just better. Head coach Derek Dooley said Couch has "really shown why we signed him and what we needed him for." Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said Couch is playing his best football.

The duo of Couch and Malik Jackson has become a disruptive duo at defensive tackle.

"That really changes the game and changes how you call it," Wilcox said. "We need them to continue to do that. Lance has done a great job preparing those guys week in and week out."

It might have taken a little more work for Couch. The Florida native has asthma, which he has to manage while he's playing. It was especially tough when he first moved to Knoxville and had to battle the heat and long practices in preseason training camp.

That wasn't all that was slowing Couch down.

"Early in the season I was very scared to make any plays," he said. "I was just always worried about making mistakes. Coach Thompson told me, 'You should never play like that. If you're going to make mistakes, make them at full [speed].'

"Just looking back, I really have showed a lot of improvement, but always you can improve better and better each week."

Now that slow start and poor first practice are distant memories.

"No one understands what it's like to be a D-lineman in the SEC until you get here, and it's very unrealistic for those kids, they want to get all hyped," Thompson said. "The reality of it is that's not the way this game works, especially at this level. He just goes to work every day, has a good attitude and he's a tough guy."