KNOXVILLE - Jacques Smith has no problem heaping high expectations on himself.
"A sack on every down would satisfy me," Tennessee's sophomore defensive end said after Tuesday's practice.
The Ooltewah native might be trying too hard to make a big play every play, though. Smith has just eight tackles and one tackle for loss in his last four games following a zero-tackle performance against Alabama last week. Expected to be a active disruptor in the Volunteers' pass rush, the 6-foot-2, 255-pounder has just half a sack this season.
"Every pass is not going to be a sack, every run's not going to be a tackle for a loss," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said Wednesday. "You've got to do your job within the defense, and then we give him freedom to make a play. We don't want anybody to be a robot, but there is certain places you need to be on pass downs, on run downs. He's just got to stay with it."
Like most of the rest of UT's defense, Smith is in his first year as a starter, and he's acknowledged that he's having to learn as he goes a little bit. Smith said he's more frustrated that the Vols are losing than in his own individual performance.
"Struggling? I really can't really say," he said. "Of course I want to do better and of course I want to make big plays. I haven't gotten to that point yet and I've got to continue to do better on the run and pass."
Smith was more active in the season's first three games when he had 14 tackles and made 4.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, but his stretch of little production has coincided with a tougher portion of the schedule. Coach Derek Dooley said Monday that Smith's struggles are due to his lighter size against bigger tackles and what he called "freelancing" outside of the defense.
"It's not Jac saying, 'Hey, screw you guys, I'm going to do my own thing.' It's not that," Wilcox said. "He wants to make plays, make a big play. You've got a job to do. There's places you've got to be. From there, we want to give you the freedom to make a play. He's just got to be more consistent in that."
The Vols like to do a mix of things with Smith, whether it's stand him up on one end of the line of scrimmage with three down defensive linemen, play him as a traditional end or drop him in coverage. What Smith has to realize is that sometimes doing his job won't end in him showing up in the box score.
"He has to work within the framework of the defense," said defensive line coach Lance Thompson. "If he's supposed to have the C-gap and the ball issn't run in the C-gap, that doesn't make him a bad player. In my book, that makes him a good player.
"Now if he's supposed to be in the C-gap and he jumps outside to make a play and they cut it up inside for eight yards that's where I have a problem. That's what we are trying to teach him."
Thompson noted Smith's positive attitude, and Smith was his usual smiling self in his post-practice interview despite facing questions about his play. Dooley said the Vols are getting "not much" from Smith, and while Thompson believes expectations might have been too high initially, he's "not displeased" with one of his favorite pupils.
"We're not down on Jac," Wilcox said. "He's just got to play and play through it and execute and simplify everything. 'Here's what I'm going to do on this play, and that's it, that's all I'm thinking about.' Execute that play and move to the next one and not worry about, 'I didn't make that one, I need to make this one.'
"It's just consistency for the four quarters of a game and that's what it takes."
Even if it doesn't mean a sack on every play.