The football futures of Darren Myles and Janzen Jackson seemed intertwined at the end of Tennessee’s 2010 spring practice.
Myles was named the defensive MVP of the spring. Jackson was coming off a promising freshman season. Together, they formed a safety tandem that seemingly would fortify UT’s last line of defense for at least the next two or three years, with the possibility one would be sufficiently advanced to go pro by the end of his third college season.
The tandem never made it to the first game.
Myles was kicked off the team for his role in the infamous Bar Knoxville brawl last summer. Ten months later, Jackson is in football limbo after withdrawing from school this winter to deal with personal issues.
The two players once shared more than a position. Both were acclaimed recruits, signed by former UT coach Lane Kiffin. And both were involved in off-the-field incidents. But their similarities are no longer as significant as the most glaring difference between them.
UT second-year coach Derek Dooley still believes in one of them.
Dooley said it took him no more than an hour to determine that Myles had to go after the player was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer, and resisting and evading arrest.
The decision wasn’t surprising. What else would you expect from a coach who often has made good character sound as important as a good 40 time?
But the same coach who cut loose Myles still embraces his other troubled safety and still prepares to welcome him back to the team if he does what’s required this offseason. So far, so good is one way to characterize the coach’s assessment of Jackson’s progress this off-season.
“I have a comfort level with Janzen,” Dooley explains.
There’s comfort. There’s no certainty.
“Every decision I’ve made (relative to the secondary) has been with the idea Janzen won’t be back,” Dooley said.
Jackson’s return would come with a risk attached.
As a freshman, he was suspended for a game by Kiffin. He wasn’t allowed to play for three more games before he was cleared of any wrongdoing in an alleged armed-robbery at a local convenience store. Last December, he was excused from more than a week of practice but played in the Music City Bowl. Dooley offered no explanation, but Jackson’s father said in a radio interview on the Sports Page that it was a “family situation.”
All that history raises a couple of obvious question: Why risk another setback and the distractions that come with it, especially when you have placed such import on good character in laying the foundation for your program?
“We want a culture of good character,” Dooley said. “It doesn’t mean you won’t have players making bad decisions.”
Dooley says he will judge those bad decisions on a case-by-case basis. So Myles is gone; Jackson stays — for now.
The coach can’t provide specifics in defending his decision to support Jackson, because he can’t publicly discuss the player’s problem. While Dooley acknowledges that the program ultimately must come first, he also said the steps taken on Jackson’s behalf are the same he would have taken for his own son.
One’s football family is different, of course. And in the most candid conversations, so are its members.
“Any coach who says whether someone is a good player doesn’t matter (in such decision-making) is lying,” Dooley said.
One player can do only so much for a team as modestly talented as Dooley’s next one. UT isn’t Auburn of last year. And Jackson isn’t Cam Newton.
His absence or presence won’t determine a championship, but his status is significant. He is a good player on a team that needs all the good players it can get.
Dooley said he has spoken often with Jackson during the offseason. He also has kept his team apprised of the player’s situation and said it supported his decision.
If Jackson does what’s expected of him, the university is apt to readmit him to school this fall. His reinstatement wouldn’t require a waiver from the NCAA, Dooley said.
As good as all of that might sound to fans, his return is hardly a done deal. Dooley stressed the magnitude of Jackson’s challenge when asked if this could have a happy ending.
“I’m hopeful,” he said.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/johnadamskns.