KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee defense didn’t put together a complete effort in either of last week’s two scrimmages.
But the best defensive player wasn’t out there.
That excuse evaporated Monday when sophomore safety Janzen Jackson returned from a hamstring injury.
“He’s one of our best players on defense,” first-year Volunteers coach Derek Dooley said after the team’s indoor practice. “It hurt us not to have him there. Now the key is let’s get him back to where he’s 100 percent. You’ve got to be careful when you bring them back off an injury like that.
Tennessee free safety Janzen Jackson (15) is congratulated by teammate Jacques Smith, left, after stopping tailback David Oku during the Orange and White spring college football game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on April 17. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel,Adam Brimer)
“You can work them too hard and you’re back to the drawing board.”
Good luck telling Jackson to take it easy. It was hard enough for coaches and trainers to keep the talented Louisiana native off the field the past few days.
“I’m 100 percent now, and I’m ready to hit some people,” Jackson said. “I’ve been waiting too long.”
Jackson, one of the Volunteers’ hardest hitters despite a slight, 6-foot, 190-pound frame, said he expanded his game this offseason in hopes of filling some of the immense void left by All-American Eric Berry.
Few defensive backs have enough ability to single-handedly replace a player of Berry’s caliber, but former UT coach Lane Kiffin said last season that Jackson might be more physically gifted than the Thorpe Award winner. He said Jackson was just as fast and slightly more fluid.
The modest Berry said last season that he wouldn’t mind Jackson surpassing his success.
“That would be a really good thing for Tennessee, so that’s fine with me,” Berry said. “I’ll be rooting for him to be better than me, actually. You always want to see your little brothers doing big things.”
Jackson, like Berry, was a five-star prospect coming out of high school. But while Jackson showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman, he didn’t come close to Berry’s first-year statistics. Jackson collected 37 tackles and one interception in 10 games last season — he sat out two games after an in-season arrest — and added one fumble recovery and four passes defended.
Berry collected 86 tackles and five interceptions as a true freshman in 2007.
“From personally analyzing my film, I’d say I need to get to the ball a little bit more, make more breaks on run plays and pass plays and just be around the ball a little bit more now,” Jackson said. “That’s what Eric brought to the table.
“I had an OK year last year, but I know how much better I can be.”
The Vols need him to be better, especially with the secondary’s lack of depth and experience. Jackson will start alongside a new safety, Prentiss Waggner or Brent Brewer, and junior Art Evans is the team’s only significantly experienced cornerback.
Dooley has made it no secret that he’s concerned with several things in the secondary. Jackson spoke Sunday as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
“I see it as an opportunity,” Jackson said. “New names, new faces, new talent. It’s a factory here. Players come in and players leave, and we’re just looking for the next big player, the next person to step up. That’s where we’re at now.
“We’re real young, but we’ve got a lot of talent.”
Jackson, like Berry last season, probably will be the Vols’ defensive fulcrum. He hopes new coordinator Justin Wilcox will design set-ups for him like predecessor Monte Kiffin did for Berry.
“I’m very excited,” Jackson said. “Coach Wilcox did a great job over there at Boise State, and I’m ready to get the season started and put this fast-paced, versatile defense on to other offenses. They’re not going to be ready.”
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