From five-star recruit to five-star dining: Maurice Couch's 2011 has been all that he could have ever envisioned after toiling through years of uncertainty about his future in football.
When he wakes up in the morning, Couch still has to pinch himself. Not many players who miss two full seasons over a three-year span often make it to a place like Tennessee.
"I'd never thought I'd get to this level, to be honest," said Couch, UT's junior-college transfer defensive tackle. "Now that I'm here, it's a blessing. I thank God every day for being out here."
Now that Couch is with the Vols and is in a position to contribute immediately at a position of great need, coach Derek Dooley wants a little bit more from the 305-pound sophomore.
While it's typically considered to be half the battle, getting here, for Couch, was just the start.
"The food has just overwhelmed him — how good we eat here," Dooley said. "I told him so far we've given you all of this and you really haven't given us anything back.
"He's got a long way to go from a conditioning standpoint and it's kind of baby steps. But he has good ability and he's going to help us."
There has certainly been progress since Couch arrived in late May, a trip he counted down month by month, day by day, on a Twitter account that engages Vols fans more than any player on the team.
He arrived weighing a not-so-chiseled 295 pounds and has since added 10 pounds of muscle. He's a few inches shorter than fellow tackles Malik Jackson and Daniel Hood, as most of his weight is allocated to his wide hips and tree trunk legs.
The "Welcome to the SEC" moment didn't come when he lined up opposite center James Stone and guard Zach Fulton at Friday's practice, the first in which he and the rest of UT's newcomers were teamed with the veterans. It happened on one of his first team runs during the summer.
Couch wasn't at his junior college in Kansas anymore.
"You're not expected to go against mediocre guys every snap like I did at JUCO," Couch said. "It's really tough. You never underestimate your opponent."
Couch is used to things being tough. His road to UT was far from easy, even when he was a junior at Edgewater High outside Orlando, Fla.
In a year when the country's top tier players are solidifying their college offers and star rankings, Couch wasn't playing at all. He sat out his entire junior season because of academic issues. He came back strong as a senior, but his test scores weren't good enough to play at a Division I program, so he withdrew after the first semester, picked up a GED and enrolled at Garden City (Kan.) Community College.
Though he had inherent talent and size that made him a better tackle than his veteran teammates, Couch was promptly redshirted. From a conditioning standpoint, he wasn't ready, said his former coach, Lucas Aslin.
"There's a reason why he was at a junior college and didn't sign at somewhere like Florida out of high school," said Aslin, who is now a high school coach in the Kansas City area. "Those types of guys manipulate the system very well.
"One of the first things I told him when he got here was 'You can't con a conman. You can't con me because I've been there before. I've been you.'"
It took more than one conversation to crack Couch of his bad habits. It took nine months.
Couch arrived at Garden City weighing around 312 pounds, Aslin said. The goal was set for him to shave 15 off that total.
Without the enticement of playing time, Couch sulked a bit and didn't initially practice at the highest level, Aslin said. It wasn't until spring practice the following year when Couch was playing up to his potential and doing what he needed to do in the weight room.
"Me and him had a lot of battles," Aslin said. "He was a guy that wanted to do it his way and I'm a young, pretty stubborn guy, so I wanted him to do it my way.
"He eventually figured some things out and decided this is what he wanted to do."
Couch's one season on the field at Garden City was a disappointment from a win-loss perspective and it ultimately led to Aslin's resignation, but it ultimately propelled Couch into the national recruiting spotlight. He amassed 45 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, three sacks and a forced fumble. It was a big year for Couch personally, too.
Aslin was one of the first people whom with Couch confided when he learned that he was going to be a father. Couch announced the birth of his daughter, Ahmya, on his Twitter page in late April.
Nothing changed Couch more, Aslin said.
"When I talked to him in the spring before all this happened, it was all about playing time," Aslin said. "When he knew he was going to have a kid, he started coming back to me and saying, 'They had a great academic support system,' and this and that.
"You can tell a kid grows up a little bit when he starts telling you that instead of, 'They got my number and don't have any DTs coming in.'"
Couch's potential, Aslin said, is limitless. Two of Aslin's former players saw some action at the professional level, and Couch is "better than both of them."
It just all depends on how much Couch "gives back."
"If he decides to play, he can do whatever he wants," Aslin said. "If he doesn't, he can just be another guy."