The Tennessee program wasn't alone in wondering if Janzen Jackson would be returning for another season.
The junior safety admitted having had some doubts about his future with the Vols over the last few months as well.
In his first public comments since the Music City Bowl, Jackson declined on Monday to offer specifics about the personal problems that led to his withdrawal from UT in the spring and created lingering questions about his status with the team throughout the offseason. But while keeping most of the details about his absence private, Jackson did open up about his relationship with coach Derek Dooley and the difficulty on the road back to the Vols, also offering up his gratitude for the people who stood by him during the long process as well.
"It feels great to be back out here with my teammates, my friends, back playing the sport that I love," Jackson said. "As you know, I had some personal issues, a lot of family problems, and I just want to thank Tennessee for the support. I'm happy to be back out here on the field. That's where I'm at right now.
"I didn't think I was gone, but I thought there was a slim chance I wouldn't come back because I had to get some things in order to get back out on the field. I had to take care of some stuff, but I'm definitely happy to be back out here in orange."
Jackson stressed on multiple occasions that he wasn't ready to talk publicly about exactly what he needed to take care of away from the field, and as Dooley has indicated several times, the work isn't necessarily over now that he's back in pads.
But Jackson does have the benefit of structure around him again, not to mention a chance to do what he loves. And he's also got teammates and a coach who welcomed him back with open arms and never wavered in their support, even when it was no lock he'd return from a job laminating and posting wall decals around campus facilities to actually play in them once more.
"The toughest part was being away from this game, the game I love so much," Jackson said. "That's the biggest thing that hurt me while I was gone. I did everything I possibly could to get back, and it paid off. I'm just happy to be back out here with my teammates and these coaches, because they gave me so much support during my time off.
"I think (the meetings with Dooley) showed his concern, and he would do that for anybody on this team. I really appreciate Coach Dooley and the school for supporting me through my troubled times. ... For all the coaching changes, for Coach Dooley to stay there and be able to meet with me every week and make sure I'm doing all right, that meant a lot to me."
Dooley is able to gauge Jackson's progress daily now, and the early returns after a week in camp appear to be promising. Since the Vols had their first official workout a week ago, Dooley has had nothing but praise for the energy and attitude of the second-team all-SEC pick on the practice field.
Physically, the only real concern appears to be making sure Jackson's conditioning is back where it needs to be. Jackson says the brace he's wearing on his right wrist is only a precautionary measure for the torn tendon suffered last year against Ole Miss. Mentally, Dooley indicated he had seen a more mature approach from Jackson since he returned, and the complete package once again gives UT one of the best defensive backs in the league at its disposal.
"Time will tell, but Janzen loves playing ball, he loves it," Dooley said. "So when he's back out here on the grass, he's just a different person, he really is. I hope he continues to stay on the path he's on, and if he will, then he certainly will benefit and we all will.
"I've been one day at a time ever since he came back. He seems like he's in a good place right now, and I hope he stays in that place. That place is pretty good for Tennessee."
Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached at