KNOXVILLE -- The pocket collapsed around AJ McCarron, and Tennessee's Malik Jackson finished the job by taking down the Alabama quarterback from behind for his first sack of the season.
With the Crimson Tide electing to let the first-half clock run out two weeks ago, the Volunteers' senior defensive lineman thought it an appropriate time to mimic a celebration he watched Buffalo Bills receiver Stevie Johnson perform the previous Sunday.
Jackson, regarded as one of the Vols' best cooks by his teammates, pretended he was whipping something up in a skillet. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zu9t7kjB3ec)
"It just came to me," the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Californian said as a smile widened across his face.
The success is starting to come to Jackson, too. He's made 27 tackles, two sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss in his last four games and appears to be gearing up for another strong finish in the regular season's final month like last season, when he had 27 of his 48 tackles and all five of his sacks in the last five regular-season games.
The Vols use Jackson all over their defensive line, though his two sacks in the past two games have come from an edge-rusher position.
"He's been playing well," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "When we line up, he could be our best nine-technique, our best five-, our best six-, our best three-, our best nose. We move him around where we think we need him by scheme and by matchup. He's done a good job of that. He's played really well at times, and there's been some times when he hasn't played quite as well, which he'd tell you. We've been pleased with is production."
With Chris Walker and Gerald Williams at end last season, UT moved Jackson inside to fill a big need at tackle. While that move continues to pay off for the Vols, head coach Derek Dooley suggested it might actually limit some of Jackson's production.
"What hurts us a little bit with Malik is we don't have a lot of tackles, and I think we could probably do more with him if we had more guys in the middle that could hold up," he said. "We could put him at end, we could put him at [five-technique] and he could probably have a lot more production than he's having. We just don't have that luxury because we don't have a lot of guys in the middle.
"Malik, he's been great, had a great attitude, really matured as a person. He's matured as a player, he's been a great team player. He's doing good."
Jackson held up well in the middle against the running games of Georgia, LSU and Alabama, racking up 23 tackles against those teams. His first sack, which he called "a breath of fresh air," took some patience. The benefit of having Jackson rush the quarterback from an inside spot is his long arms can get in the passing lanes, but he said it's easier going one-on-one with an offensive tackle though there's more ground to cover.
"I was happy with my production because we worked on the run real hard this season, so I was happy I got kind of stout in the run," Jackson said. "I was disappointed in the pass [rush]. I just have to realize during the season to let it go. You can't think about getting sacks. You've just got to come out there and work and they'll come to you. That's what happened at the Alabama game. Now they've been flowing."
As one of two senior starters on the defense, Jackson made becoming a leader a priority for himself this season at the urging of Dooley and defensive line coach Lance Thompson. Jackson is one of the biggest talkers on the team -- Thompson reminds him, "Short answers" seemingly before each post-practice interview Jackson does. But since he came in immediately eligible last July as a transfer from Southern Cal, Jackson's play had to put him in position to do his talking and leading.
"It's a little bit hard when you get here being a new guy, especially his situation coming from a different college," Wilcox said. "When you come in ... you've got to be careful about what you say and what you do. I think he tried to earn his respect on the field, which the right way to do it. He's been a little more vocal this offseason and this year, which we needed him to be because we don't have a lot of veterans on the defense.
"He's taken that role, and he's learned how to do that more and more. Again, he hasn't been perfect by any means, but he's a guy that's done a nice job of growing up and learning how to be a veteran guy. It's carried over into his play."
Other defensive linemen, from Corey Miller and Maurice Couch to Jacques Smith and Daniel Hood, have noted how Jackson has helped them this season. Wilcox admitted the Vols "didn't know 100 percent" what they were getting with Jackson, but thanks to his consistency and his maturation on and off the field, he's been very valuable for a program short on defensive tackles and shorter on upperclassmen.
"He's taking ownership," said defensive end Marlon Walls. "He's saying, 'I'm a senior, and it's my job to lead this D-line.' I know I'm challenging him to lead this D-line. I know when the games get tough, I holler out, 'Senior, make a play. This is your last year, what you want to be remembered by?' He's taking that, and I appreciate him for that because he's taking that leader role."
Said Dooley: "We knew we were going to get something better than we had, and that was really the objective. And we did."