KNOXVILLE - Jacques Smith still is being forced to use his left hand in handshakes.
The thick black cast protecting his broken thumb remains on his right hand, and the Tennessee defensive end has played the Volunteers' last four games wearing the cast covered in tape.
The former Ooltewah High School standout said he "finally got back up to my standard" and played what he thought was his best game in Tennessee's overtime loss to Georgia last week, and though his preseason thumb injury is probably affecting his play, he won't admit it.
"We had been rehabbing on my hand for the past three-and-a-half weeks, and it was the first time I could actually really grip the blocker and really shove off of him, and it showed in the game," Smith told the Times Free Press after Tuesday's practice.
"I'm not an excuse type of guy," he added. "I just like to play 100 percent. If I'm out there, you're 100 percent, so there's no excuse."
Against Georgia, Smith registered two tackles for loss, including one on a third-and-1 in the first half. The Bulldogs went for the ensuing fourth down, and though the 6-foot-2, 243-pound Smith tipped Aaron Murray's pass at the line after fighting off a cut block, Chris Conley still caught the pass on which Murray became the SEC's all-time career passing yardage leader.
It was the first play of overtime, when Smith tackled Brendan Douglas and lost his helmet in the process, that defensive line coach Steve Stripling pointed to as an example of what Smith needs to do more often.
"I think Jacques, we used the word inconsistent for the last game as a defense, and that was Jacques," Stripling said following Wednesday's practice at Neyland Stadium.
"Some plays, he's outstanding. An example being that first play of overtime, a fantastic play. But there's other plays in there he wasn't. I think with him it's more a matter of consistency than it is the hand or anything."
The inconsistency label has been one that's been linked to Smith throughout his career, and it's one he's still trying to break.
"You continue to grind and practice the way we practice," Stripling said. "You get in the film room so you can know more pre-snap, and that can help your consistency."
Between Smith, fellow seniors Corey Miller and Marlon Walls and true freshman Corey Vereen, Tennessee has gotten some good play from its defensive ends, but the Vols' pass rush largely has been spotty throughout this season. Tennessee's eight sacks are tied for 84th nationally and 10th in the SEC. The Vols registered 17 sacks last season.
After missing the season's first two games against Austin Peay and Western Kentucky, Smith still is looking for his first sack of the season, and with the end of his career creeping up on him, the extra urge to make one last impact or two surely will kick in.
"From day one, those six seniors in my room, they've been outstanding," Stripling said. "They've been working, and he was obviously chomping at the bit. I think there's a great sense of urgency in him."
Said Smith: "I feel like this season hasn't been everything that I've thought it would be as my senior season because of some minor mishaps at the beginning of the season. But it's always room for improvement. That's something that I'm looking at cautiously as I continue to progress forward, and my coaches have been constantly on me improving my game as much as a possible.
I'm trying to study and work on my habits as much as possible because this time is really critical for me, not just because it's my senior year. I didn't go through camp, so every practice, every film session, it's very critical."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.