KNOXVILLE - Derek Dooley certainly was glad to get one of his best defensive players back last week when star safety Janzen Jackson re-enrolled at the University of Tennessee.
The Volunteers' coach, though, isn't getting too far ahead of himself with Jackson as the junior, who withdrew from UT in February due to ongoing undisclosed personal reasons, continues down the road back to playing shape and does what he has to do to remain with the team.
"He's only been here how long now, three days? It's a little premature for me to say he's back," Dooley said late Wednesday morning following the dedication of UT's new Center for Athletic Field Safety.
"He has a long way to go physically, and he still has a lot of things he has to do to stay a part of the team. Only time will tell if he's going to be our safety this year. I think it's a good positive step forward but we are certainly not done, if that makes sense."
The same personal reasons that kept Jackson out of most of the Vols' preparations for the Music City Bowl in December carried over into the offseason. The second team All-Southeastern Conference selection remained in Knoxville during his absence and stayed in touch with his teammates and UT's coaches.
While his expected return last week for the start of the second session of summer school might have been the best news the Vols have received this summer, Jackson hasn't played football or worked out with the team in seven months.
"We are certainly better off today than we were a week ago because he's in school and he's working out with the team," Dooley said. "That's a big step. He hasn't worked out with our football team literally since the Music City Bowl. It's been a long time away from the team [and] it's a good step to get him back, but we also can't forget that he has been gone for a long time and it's going to be a long road back."
The mysterious personal issues aren't the first off-field troubles the talented Jackson, who was the Vols' third-leading tackler and intercepted five passes last season, has faced in his career. He missed three games late in his freshman season due to two separate suspensions, including a two-game sentence for his arrest in a failed armed robbery attempt with teammates Nu'keese Richardson and Mike Edwards.
Both players were dismissed by former UT coach Lane Kiffin, but the charges against Jackson were dropped and he returned to start both of the Vols' last two games.
During his absence from school, Jackson held a part-time job with UT's maintenance staff, though now he'll have classes and team activities should help him continue to better manage his life and the unknown issues that forced his withdrawal.
"I hope it helps him," Dooley said. "I always feel like you are better able to manage your personal life when you are on a hardcore structure and are busy all the time. It's the great paradox where you have to discipline somebody or he feels like he needs to leave but he's losing that structure that assists him from the beginning.
"You deal with that with all players. Most of the time we feel like their grades are better during the season and when we are on them all the time. That's certainly the case with Janzen - the more structure and [busier] he's been, the better he has been able to manage things."
While Dooley certainly hopes Jackson will continue to do what's required to remain with the Vols, there's still a degree of hesitancy for the second-year coach. It's the same day-by-day and week-by-week approach Dooley took during Jackson's absence.
"The one thing that I'+ve learned," he said, "in dealing with young men 18 to 22 [years old] is no matter how good you feel about them today, it doesn't mean that they won't disappoint you tomorrow. I'm cautiously optimistic that he's going to stay the track that he's been on. I am proud of what he's been doing. Hopefully he's going to continue to build on what he's done."