Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said he likes bringing in “two or three” junior college players in each recruiting class.

This year, he did just that, bringing in defensive tackle Maurice Couch and defensive backs Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier. But unlike most JUCOs, who have only two years of eligibility remaining when they enroll in a division-one school, these three each have three years of eligibility left.

Most JUCOs are expected to contribute, if not start, immediately when they arrive. Though none of UT’s three this year are listed as starters for the season-opener against Montana, all three are expected play big roles for UT’s defense.

Couch was a Junior College All-American last year at Garden City Community College in Kansas. From Orlando, Fla., Couch grew up a Miami fan, and the Hurricanes along with Florida State, South Florida, Ohio State, West Virginia and Kentucky all showed interest in him while in high school, but his sick mom was one of the factors that kept him from qualifying at a division-one school.

“I had a tough high school life,” Couch said. “I was always out of school ’cause my mom was sick and stuff. It was real tough for me to get into school so the next route was junior college.”

Now 6-foot-2, 305 pounds and listed as the back-up at nose tackle, Couch said attending junior college made him a lot more mature as a person.

“I’m very blessed to be here,” Couch said. “From what I came from, I never thought I’d be here. Now that I’m here, it’s awesome and it’s a blessing.”

Like Couch, Lanier was forced to go the junior college route after failing to qualify academically in 2009 when he signed with Auburn. He attended East Mississippi Community College, and again, like Couch, was a Junior College All-American in 2009. He redshirted the 2010 season due to injury before coming to Knoxville this summer. He had played safety for much of his high school and junior college career, but has been a pleasant surprise for coaches at cornerback.

“He’s making a lot of progress,” coach Derek Dooley said. “He’s not near where we need him to be, but he shows a lot of flashes. He has really good size for a corner. Let’s start with that. He’s instinctive. He has had a great work ethic and attitude. As long as he stays on that pace, he is going to help us.”

Unlike Couch and Lanier, Moore attended a division-one college out of high school: Southern Cal. After the 2009 season, then-USC coach Pete Carroll left for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Moore said Carroll was one of the main reasons he wanted to be a Trojan, but he gave new USC and former UT coach Lane Kiffin and his coaching staff a try.

“Once (Carroll) left, it just didn’t feel like I wanted to be there anymore,” Moore said. “I went through the spring, tried the new coaching staff, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I felt like I needed a new situation and a new opportunity somewhere else so I just decided to leave.”

Moore transferred to Los Angeles Harbor Community College and was the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2010. He said his experience at both schools has helped him at UT.

“My last two schools I think prepared me real well getting here to this point,” he said. “Seeing the D-I level first off at USC coming out of high school, so already knowing what the expectations was coming to high-level football like this. Playing at Harbor, our defensive system there was pretty similar to the one I play here now. That was the main reason I came here ’cause I knew I’d play multiple defensive sets and stuff like that.”

 Coaches have tried the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Moore at multiple positions in the Vols’ secondary. At the end of fall camp, he was competing for the starting job at nickleback, a position UT will use often this season when it plays five defensive backs.

All three struggled with conditioning early in fall camp, especially Couch, who suffers from asthma, but each worked his way into a playing role in this year’s football team. Which is exactly why UT signed them.