KNOXVILLE - Janzen Jackson didn't believe his University of Tennessee football career was over.
The junior safety did think, however, there was a "slim chance" he would never again return to the Volunteers during his five-month hiatus from the team. Jackson, one of the Vols' most talented defensive players, withdrew from UT in February for personal reasons before returning to school and the Vols in July.
"I had to get some things in order for me to get back out here on the field," Jackson said after Monday's practice in his first media appearance since the Music City Bowl last December. "I had to take care of some stuff, but I'm definitely happy to be back out here in the orange.
"It was a lot of things: personal issues, family issues, a lot of stuff that I would rather not talk about in public."
Jackson missed three games his freshman season for two separate suspensions, including a two-game penalty following an arrest for being present at a failed armed robbery attempt. The charges were dropped and Jackson returned for the season's final two games.
During Jackson's absence this year, coach Derek Dooley was in continual contact with him.
"I've been one day at a time with him," Dooley said. "I think [our meetings helped] because of all the stuff he's been through. We've had a lot of one-on-ones, not as coach to player but just as an older guy helping a younger guy.
"I'm glad he listened. It took him about 28 meetings, but on the 29th he started listening. I wish I could get that way with all our players, but I wouldn't have time to coach if I did that."
Jackson said the sessions with Dooley were check-ups on his progress - in both the personal situations and his physical shape. The support resonated with Jackson.
"I think it showed his concern," Jackson said. "He would do that for anybody on this team, and I really appreciate Coach Dooley and the school for supporting me through my troubled times. For all the coaching changes and 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 acknowledged he felt the need to reach out to his troubled player, but the Vols' second-year coach said Jackson did the necessary work.
"I don't want to sit here and give myself any credit," Dooley said. "Janzen is the one that's done it, so I'd like to think that if I didn't have those talks, somebody else would and he would be back. We just see if he's here tomorrow - that's all we can do."
Jackson, a second-team All-Southeastern Conference player last season who was third on the team in tackles, worked a part-time job in UT's maintenance department helping to design, create and laminate signs to go on buildings around campus. He also had to rehab a wrist ligament he tore in last November's win against Ole Miss.
Dooley has said Jackson has specific requirement to remain on the team, but having the structure of football and school has him on the right track.
"He seems like he's in a good place right now," Dooley said. "I hope he stays in that place, because that place is pretty good for Tennessee. Time will tell, but you know Janzen loves playing ball, so when he's back out here on the grass, he's a different person - he really is. I hope he continues to stay on the path he's on."
Said Jackson: "It feels great to be back out here with my teammates and my friends, back playing the sport I love.
"The toughest part was being away from this game, the game I love so much. This is what I love to do in my spare time. 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."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.