KNOXVILLE - When Malik Jackson had to adjust to a different role last fall, the rising Tennessee senior embraced his move from defensive end to defensive tackle and flourished.
Now Jackson is focusing this spring practice on embracing another responsibility.
"I'm just trying to get the guys around me better so we all get better as a group," Jackson said after Tuesday's workout. "That's what we really have to do because we don't have too many people coming back with too much game experience."
Though he's not been at UT a full year yet after transferring from Southern California last summer, Jackson is one of just two seniors - linebacker Austin Johnson is the other - projected to start on defense for the Volunteers. The departures of linebacker Nick Reveiz and end Chris Walker have created a void in leadership that will need to be addressed this spring, and while Jackson admittedly isn't the most vocal guy, he's well aware of taking the necessary steps toward doing what he can to fill that hole.
"Coach [Derek Dooley] talked to about us about wanting to be leaders - me, [tailback] Tauren [Poole] and a few other guys," he said. "I just try to go out there, get me right and if I'm getting me right by talking to you, then I'll try to get you right. But other than that, more on the field I just try to do my job and just try to lead by example. If I'm making plays, hopefully people see that and they make plays."
Even sliding inside after starting his UT career at end couldn't keep Jackson from making plays, as he became arguably the Vols' best defensive lineman the latter half of the season, when he had five sacks in a four-game stretch.
He's made it point to put on some pounds as well. He weighed in a 267 before Tuesday's practice, and the goal is to pack on another 10-15 pounds.
"Coming into this year I felt like last year I played really undersized," Jackson said. "This year I just really want to add on some weight so I can play the double teams good and be stout."
Despite the departures of Walker and Gerald Williams and the Achilles' tendon injury to Ben Martin leaving the Vols depleted at end, Jackson said he never considered going back this off season. He admitted he'd like some snaps as a pass-rushing end on clear passing downs, but his home is battling it out in the middle.
"I felt like did a good job at tackle, and I wanted to see how far I could take it," he said. "I'd been playing end since I got to college and [in] high school, so I wanted to see if I added some more weight and actually got to learn good technique from [defensive line] Coach [Lance] Thompson and have good plays by [defensive coordinator] Coach [Justin] Wilcox [to] see what I could do."
But now Jackson's focus is in two places.
"I just try to do my thing and show them by example," he said. "Then if I feel some people are lacking or feel some people need help ... I try to help them out. Out of practice, I try to help them with their playbooks, just little stuff. I try to get them pushed so they can get their stuff going."