When Tennessee coaches shouted "last play" at last Friday's practice, defensive tackle Montori Hughes reacted as though they said "Montori's play." He burst from his set position, plowed through a blocker and tackled the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage.
It wasn't a one-play or one-day phenomenon. It was a continuation of what you saw in the spring from a 6-foot-4, 310-pound freshman, who, though mildly recruited, sometimes performs as though he is intent on becoming UT's next great defensive tackle.
That's not farfetched, according to head coach Lane Kiffin, who describes Hughes as having "superstar potential." But the description doesn't end there.
Kiffin is as familiar with Hughes' downs as his ups. While a casual practice observer might notice only Hughes' spectacular offensive disruptions, the coaches are just as attuned to the plays where he strays from his gap. "Consistency," they preach. Without it, Hughes can't stay on the field, Kiffin says.
In the best of all football worlds, I would concur. But on a team struggling to plug holes on a thin defensive front, how can you keep a player with Hughes' potential - consistent or not - off the field?
Another play comes to mind, from Saturday's scrimmage. As the offense snapped the ball from its 1-yard line, Hughes stumbled out of his stance, then quickly regained his balance and tackled the ball carrier for a safety.
You can't watch a practice without noticing No. 93. He doesn't have to make a play. He only has to make himself heard. He does that repeatedly, providing incessant chatter as he loudly challenges his defense or insults the offense.
"Sometimes, that's good," fifth-year senior offensive guard Vladimir Richard said. "Sometimes, you need to tone it down. You don't want to get known as someone who's always talking, not performing.
"He has all the ability to perform. But sometimes, if he's tired, it might not all come."
Richard really likes Hughes, and not just as a player.
"He's a great young man, fun to be around," Richard says. "Sometimes he might get you mad, but all you can do is smile, because he don't mean no harm."
In the heat of practice, Hughes isn't always so much fun if you're trying to make headway against the defense.
"When (the offense) makes a play or they say something, it gets under my skin," Hughes said. "Then, it's on."
His teammates have noticed.
"He needs to learn how to come hard every play, not just when he's mad," Richard said. "When he's upset, he's going to come like a lightning bolt. Once he gets to that level (where he's consistent), teams are not going to know what to do."
Inconsistency is hardly an unusual trait for a young player. That's one reason former UT defensive tackle John Henderson stood out as a freshman. His intensity rarely waned, and it wasn't uncommon in practice to see him chase down a ball carrier at the far end of the field.
Conversely, Henderson's former sidekick, Albert Haynesworth, treated practice as though it were a contagious disease. Yet both have made it big in the NFL. If you judge Haynesworth by his latest contract, he has made it bigger than any defensive tackle in league history.
Inconsistency aside, Hughes looks like a future All-SEC and NFL player. His obvious physical attributes make you wonder why he was overlooked in the recruiting process.
"I have no answer to that question," he said with a smile.
UT's former coaching staff didn't get interested in Hughes until late last year. When the Vols finally came calling, he was "shocked."
"I was just waiting on them," he said. "Waiting and waiting."
After all that waiting, it's no wonder he enrolled at UT in January, then went through spring drills, where he became a huge problem for the offense right away. With tackle Wes Brown limited by bad knees, Hughes often lines up alongside veteran starter Dan Williams in the middle of the line.
He might be there for a long time.
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.