KNOXVILLE -- It can become easy to view our college football heroes as faceless gladiators swallowed whole by plastic armor, helmets and steel facemasks, their personalities and emotions all but erased.
Where Tennessee senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson is concerned, that would be a serious injustice. Because last season's 11 tackles for losses and five sacks aside, Jackson's personality may be his best trait.
Take, for instance, his comments earlier this week concerning defensive line coach Lance Thompson.
"He's really mean," Jackson said. "He's not one of the nicer guys. He tells you he's not cursing you, he's cursing your actions. But Coach Thompson curses a lot."
Can the 2010 transfer from Southern Cal tell the difference between his person or actions being cursed?
"No," said Jackson, breaking into a wide grin.
There was his playful shrug after being called for a personal-foul penalty last year.
"I'm going to play the way I play," he said. "If they throw the flag, they throw the flag."
There's also his "Double-D" reference to coach Derek Dooley. Jackson remains the only player willing to address his coach by that term.
"I think he's OK with it," said the Northridge, Calif., native. "At least he hasn't said anything about it."
Instead, Dooley said to put Jackson with senior running back Tauren Poole on the Volunteers' 2011 media guide cover. Jackson immediately made Double-D look good by being named to the Southeastern Conference's preseason first team in both the coaches' and media's polls.
"Yeah, I was a little surprised," Jackson said. "It was a nice surprise, though. But individual actions don't matter if the team doesn't succeed."
But being chosen to grace the media guide cover in just his second year in the program was special, whether it tangibly helps the team or not.
"I didn't know about it until SEC media days," said Jackson, who attended the event with Dooley, Poole and offensive lineman Dallas Thomas.
"Someone showed it to me during one of the first interview sessions. I couldn't wait for my mom to see it, so I put it on Facebook right away. She loves it. For me it's just a picture, but it is exciting."
The return of Jackson has been one of the few exciting aspects of the defense for Dooley, who must replace everyone but him from the front seven of UT's 2010 defense.
"In this league, as we all know, if you don't have a good front seven, a productive front seven, you're going to have a tough time week in and week out," Dooley said. "We're going to have to figure out and emerge who are going to be our players that are going to make a difference for us. "
Jackson agreed, saying, "In the SEC you have to stop the run, and that starts with us [the players up front]."
Given that, one could even make the argument that a healthy Jackson is almost as important to the Big Orange season as a healthy Tyler Bray at quarterback.
But while many Volniacs are nervous about UT's defensive front, Jackson is optimistic.
"I've seen a lot of improvement," he said. "We've got more muscle than fat up there. Guys have worked really hard all summer. I think Daniel Hood's going to be a big guy who plays great. Ben Martin's coming back, and everybody knows what he can do when he's healthy. I think we're going to surprise some people."
But he understands why the Vols were picked fourth in the SEC East in the preseason poll.
"It is what it is," he said. "We really didn't prove much last year."
But Jackson proved a lot. Granted an NCAA transfer waiver from Southern Cal because the length of the Trojans' probation would have denied him a chance to return to a bowl game before he ran out of eligibility, he quickly became a fan and coaches' favorite, eventually sharing the Vols' Fourth Quarter Off-Season Award with fellow defensive lineman Willie Bohannon.
Now back for his senior season, the 6-foot-5, 270-pounder is determined to have a good time.
"We all know the plays," he said. "Now it's time to just run around and have fun and play."
Come late November, the Big Orange Nation may be cursing the end of Jackson's brief UT career. Or at least cursing the end of his actions on the field.