ATLANTA — A return was never guaranteed.
There were moments Janzen Jackson didn’t know for sure if he would even get a chance for one with Tennessee.
But after serving a one-game suspension and missing two more while waiting for charges to be dropped for his alleged role in an attempted armed robbery, the freshman safety was given another shot with the Vols. And Jackson is trying to make the most of it, starting with the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia Tech on New Year’s Eve (TV: ESPN, 7:30 p.m.).
“It’s been a process,” Jackson said after practice Sunday during his first public comments since the Nov. 12 incident. “Getting back on the field, getting back to having fun, being back with my teammates and stuff — I really enjoy being with them, and it kind of hurt me to be away from them for so long.
“I think we got stuff to look forward to with this bowl game right here, and I’m really pleased to be back with the team.”
The Vols are clearly glad to have him back.
UT coach Lane Kiffin has made repeated references over the last two months to the difference Jackson makes on the last line of defense, and it certainly looked susceptible without him.
The Vols won easily when he was suspended against Memphis, though they were gashed for more big plays than expected and didn’t look as dominant as they had throughout October with him in the lineup. Then in the first game after the arrests without Jackson, Ole Miss ran all over UT in a lopsided loss that likely cost it a spot in the Outback Bowl.
Jackson returned two weeks later and contributed to the thrilling overtime win at Kentucky that clinched a date with the Hokies, and everything appears to have worked out just fine for both parties since then.
“At times (there was doubt), but I just prayed, put my faith in God that he would lead me in the right direction, and whatever came about, I had to take it in stride,” Jackson said. “Lucky enough, I was able to get back on the team and I can go on from here.
“Just try to be positive in every decision I make, trying to lead as an example because I’ve got people that are watching, little kids looking up to me, especially back home. I’ve got to be positive for them. You know, I learned to make the right decisions, to try to make decisions that will better myself and work toward being a positive person. I just take positives from it, I don’t take anything negative from it. “
The lessons aren’t exactly over for Jackson yet, and the maturation process is ongoing.
Jackson will get to continue that process with the Vols.
“We’re in a continuing process with all of our young kids of continuing to get them to mature to the level that we need them to be, and Janzen’s one of them,” Kiffin said last week. “I do see him improving, but he still has a ways to go.
“I’ve not seen much different from a football standpoint because he’s been the same all along. Janzen has played a huge role when he has been out there, not just by the numbers, but the presence that he brings. When Janzen Jackson is in our huddle, we are a completely different defense. I can feel it in practice, and I obviously feel it in games. When you have a guy like that who knocks people out, who hits the way that he does, it builds confidence in the whole huddle. We’ve played games where guys have been injured or Janzen hasn’t been there and it’s been a different feeling.”
Clearly the Vols don’t want to lose it again. Now that he can give it once more, Jackson doesn’t want to miss out either.