Derek Dooley on the return of Janzen Jackson
NASHVILLE - As promised by his coach, Janzen Jackson was back on the practice field for the Tennessee football team.
As for why the star safety had been missing until the Vols reported for a chilly workout ahead of the Music City Bowl, that's still a secret Derek Dooley is keeping.
Regardless of the reason, UT was more than willing to welcome Jackson back after missing every practice before Sunday night's at Vanderbilt in preparation for North Carolina on Thursday (TV: ESPN, 6:30 p.m.). And the difference in the defensive backfield for the Vols and in the spirits of the team was apparent from the second he walked out on the field for the first time this month, though Jackson wasn't made available to the media to address it himself.
"I talked to him when he got here, and he seems to be doing good," Dooley said during his evening press conference. "We'll see how the week goes, but if it goes like today, then we expect to see the same Janzen back in the game.
"At some point, I'm going to put it on Janzen whether or not he wants to visit about it publicly or visit about it with you guys, it's just not my place to make that decision. Do I want to protect him? Of course I do, (same with) all of our players. He's a starting player, he's our only all-conference player, so I recognize the curiosity factor and wanting to talk to him. I respect that, so I think the best thing for me to do is talk to him about it before I do anything."
If there's still some mystery around what might have drawn Jackson home to Louisiana before practice resumed on Dec. 15, there's none about his role now that he's back with the Vols (6-6, 3-5 SEC).
The player generally considered to be the most important to UT defensively will slide right back into his starting role at safety, and though his heavy workload on special teams will continue to evaluated over the next couple days, Jackson is expected to be on the field plenty against the Tar Heels (7-5, 4-4 ACC). And based on the early reaction from Dooley and the Vols, there doesn't seem to be any concern that Jackson won't be up to the task.
"I can tell you from seeing his presence out there, feeling his presence out there, it feels good to have him back," defensive end Chris Walker said. "He's one of those guys, he's an Eric Berry-type player, when he's back there, you know he's back there and it feels good to have him back there. We're glad to have him back, it's going to help us out tremendously in the game because he makes everything easier.
"He was happy to be back, and nothing has changed with us. Everything is good, he's still our teammate, still our family, so when he came back it was just like nothing had changed."
With Jackson back, that also means Dooley won't have to continue to make changes in the secondary with a unit that has been tested with all sorts of problems throughout the season, ranging from injuries to suspension.
Jackson's availability alongside Brent Brewer at safety should allow Prentiss Waggner to stay at cornerback, and fellow corners Marsalis Teague and Eric Gordon are expected to be fine despite minor health concerns. And down the stretch, the status quo was pretty good for the Vols at those positions.
It looks a lot different in the back end, especially when you're throwing passes on the sideline - (Jackson) shows up quicker," Dooley said. "He's just one of those athletes that doesn't miss a lot when he's gone. His biggest catch-up is going to be schematic.
"Any time you have issues that can affect you and affect your focus, affect what you're thinking about, it's always a concern. The best thing we can do is try to make him feel like this is our refuge from all that and this is his other family and there's a lot of people here that love him."