Tennessee only has a small handful of personnel issues.
They just all happen to come from the same position group.
The Vols will head into the first official practice of bowl season today three players short in their secondary, two of which they already know won’t return for the Music City Bowl in Nashville against North Carolina on Dec. 30 (TV: ESPN, 6:30 p.m.).
Former starting cornerback Art Evans will miss a fifth consecutive game due to suspension, and reserve defensive back Stephaun Raines has been dismissed from the program for a violation of team rules.
But it’s the player with an uncertain timetable who figures to be the most notable absence, and when UT reports for its workout to start preparing for the Tar Heels, it will do so without star safety Janzen Jackson.
“Janzen Jackson is dealing with some very, very personal and family issues,” Vols coach Derek Dooley said during a press conference on Wednesday. “He’s back in Louisiana, and I don’t know exactly when he’ll be back, but we do expect him to play. We do expect him to be back at some point to prepare for the game. That’s all I really want to say about it because it is really personal and I want to respect his privacy on that.
“Art, we’ll reevaluate Art’s status at the end of the bowl game. We did dismiss Stephaun Raines for team-rule violations.”
To this point, those appear to be the only subtractions from a UT roster that rolled through four straight wins just to qualify for the postseason — though there’s still a possibility of players being declared academically ineligible when grades are posted.
Dooley indicated there were “one or two” players who could be at risk over the next couple days without identifying them, and he was equally protective of Jackson’s privacy.
Raines was seldom used during his junior season and Evans missed the last four games with a suspension tied to late car payments, so those absences don’t figure to cause much distress as UT (6-6, 3-5 SEC) prepares for the Tar Heels (7-5, 4-4 ACC). But Jackson is perhaps the most important player to the Vols given his role at the back of the defense, and his trip home will force Dooley to do some shuffling to the lineup just in case he doesn’t return in time for the trip to Nashville — though he stressed the program fully expects to have Jackson back in time and that he wasn’t sent home by UT.
“Janzen left Thursday or Friday, he took his last exam and I think it was the day or two after his last exam,” Dooley said. “This is his decision, and it’s personal. I don’t want to keep diving in, guys. I know you all want to ask and I know there’s a real curiosity factor on what it is.
“It’s on his schedule, not mine. It’s on his schedule.”
Dooley will kick his off this afternoon with the first of 12 scheduled practices leading up the game, and at least in the short term the plan will have to include some changes in the secondary.
That’s really nothing new for the Vols this season, who had to replace Evans during his suspension, moved Prentiss Waggner from safety to cornerback, inserted freshman Brent Brewer in the lineup at safety and also worked around a lingering toe injury for Marsalis Teague at one of the thinnest position groups on the team.
Jackson was essentially the lone constant, the only player in the secondary to start every game at the same position. The Vols anticipate that streak continuing, but now they’ll have to at least come up with a backup plan.
“We’re going to prepare without him and with him,” Dooley said. “That’s how we’re going to prepare. Those are some discussions we’ll have here soon.”