LEXINGTON, Ky. — Malik Jackson was unable to come up with a way to define his two-year stint at Tennessee, but the senior Volunteer unknowingly had summed it up already.
“It really was just a blind leap of faith that went really well,” he said earlier this week.
Jackson was preparing for his junior season at Southern Cal before deciding to transfer to UT last July. More than 16 months later, the 6-foot-5, 270-pound California native has been the Vols’ best defensive lineman, and his influence goes beyond the field.
“I think he’s had a huge impact,” said fellow senior Austin Johnson, the linebacker who is UT’s leading tackler. “He’s kind of developed into a leadership role, and I think he’s come in and embraced his moment here and the situation here. I think he’s played very well and made an impact on all the guys. I think it was great to get him.
“I just think guys listen to him. He’s always positive. You don’t really see him [complaining] at practice and always upset or anything like that. It kind of encourages the younger guys. He’s kind of taken under his wing the younger guys — that’s what we need. He doesn’t take any BS from anybody. That’s really helped him a lot being here.”
When he took his official visit, Jackson knew little about the UT program, which at that point had yet to play a game under first-year coach Derek Dooley. He admitted he wasn’t sure what to expect.
What he did know was that the Trojans, who were six months into Lane Kiffin’s tenure after the coach left Tennessee following just one season, were ineligible for bowl games the next two seasons due to NCAA sanctions.
If the Vols can beat Kentucky today for the 27th consecutive time — the nation’s longest current streak of one team beating another — then they and Jackson would go bowling for the second time under Dooley.
“I didn’t even know where Tennessee was on the map,” Jackson said. “I didn’t know anything about Tennessee. I just came here with an open mind. The coaches said they were going to give me the opportunity to play and show what I have.
“I came out here and worked really hard, and they gave it to me. I made a lot of friends, I learned a lot and I’m just glad that I had the opportunity to come in here and play.”
Jackson wasn’t accustomed to losing when he arrived at UT, which has lost 13 games the past two seasons. USC went 12-1 and won the Rose Bowl in Jackson’s freshman year. He played in all 13 games as a sophomore, when the Trojans went 9-4.
Playing defensive tackle also wasn’t something Jackson had done. UT needed better play in the interior of its line during the middle of last season, so the coaching staff slid Jackson inside. It was a move he admittedly was unsure of at first, but he flourished at the end of last season and earned preseason All-Southeastern Conference honors from the league’s coaches and media.
“Malik’s kind of his own guy,” defensive line coach Lance Thompson said. “He beats to a different drum. He’s kind of his own deal. He’s from the West Coast, comes in as a transfer, but he’s done a good job in terms of just developing his game, being unselfish, playing inside when we needed him inside. He’s a fun guy to be around, a fun guy to coach and he’s got the ability to make plays.”
Jackson has done plenty of that the last two seasons and earned himself a shot at playing in the NFL. He made 48 tackles and had five sacks in 12 starts last season. He has 35 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss in UT’s last seven games this season.
The consistent production has enabled Jackson to lead by example, but that’s just part of how he’s handled the leadership responsibility UT’s coaches asked him to fill before the season.
“I think any time a senior who’s got NFL ability comes to work every day with a great attitude and puts his heart into the program and helping us win and helping him play the best he can, I think that right there is good leadership,” Dooley said. “The more better players you have that are invested in being good and invested in winning, it permeates throughout the team.”
Jackson has been a go-to guy for help for some of UT’s other defensive linemen. Corey Miller, who’s following the same end-to-tackle path, has cited Jackson as an older voice for assistance. Maurice Couch listed a handful of things Jackson has helped him with this season.
As a transfer, though, Jackson had to earn his respect and blend in with the Vols before he even could consider becoming a leader.
“I don’t remember exactly what it was like when I first met him,” Johnson said. “I think I might have stayed away because he was a USC guy. I remember when I first starting talking to him, the first thing we talked about was Coach Kiffin and how that [staff] was. That kind of tied us all together.
“When we first got here, there was always a little bit of a connection just based on what we knew. [Jackson] bailing on [Kiffin] was kind of like he was in the same boat as us. Everybody was on his side about it.”
Jackson may have been near blind when he decided his college football career needed a changeup, but his impact since his arrival is easy to see.
“Without Malik,” Thompson said, “I’d hate to see where we are as a defense because he’s done a great job up front making plays and creating disruption. He’s playing a couple of different positions; he’s a smart guy; he’s come a long way in terms of maturity. He’s a good guy and I’m glad we have him.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...