KNOXVILLE -- Malik Jackson isn't saying his fellow Tennessee senior defensive lineman Ben Martin is starting to show his age, but...
"I call him Father Time," a grinning Jackson said during UT's preseason media event Sunday. "He's got 20 years of college experience under his belt. He teaches us how to act like a 38-year-old man."
Jackson kids because he cares. In truth, Martin turned 23 in March. And had it not been for the Achilles' tendon injury he suffered to his left leg last August, he likely would have already been in the NFL.
But that injury forced him to redshirt, then the same injury to the right leg during February workouts this past winter called into question whether he would ever again see Neyland Stadium's perfectly manicured natural grass.
"There were a lot of emotions this time last year," said Martin. "I was really unsure about everything. And the second one was actually worse. But I knew what to expect this time. I knew what was expected of me in rehab and I knew about how long it would take to come back."
He also knew how he wanted his younger teammates to perceive his attitude during such a difficult personal time.
"As a man, you can't wear your emotions on your sleeve all the time," he said. "Sometimes it's best to put on your mask, to put on your happy face."
There is no masking what Martin's return to the defensive line has done to return happy faces to a lot of his coaches and teammates, however.
"If he can stay healthy -- and Ben's doing awesome -- he's clearly one of our most productive guys," said defensive line coach Lance Thompson. "One thing about him you love as a coach is his intellect. He's always where he's supposed to be on the field. Ben's very, very disciplined and very, very smart."
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney views Martin's return from a different perspective.
"It's immeasurable what he means to developing our offensive linemen," Chaney said. "When you've got a great player on the other side of the line, you've got to bring everything you've got every day in practice. It's never a pillow fight out there.
"Beyond that, Ben understands the strain of the game. He knows it's four quarters long, 12 games long. He knows how to play hard the whole game. Just by example only he's a great role model for the younger guys."
It didn't take UT offensive tackle Dallas Thomas to know there would be no pillow fights against the 6-4, 265-pound Martin from day one of fall camp.
"He kind of shocked me back into reality," said Thomas, who weighs more than 300 pounds. "I was the first person he hit and he hit me pretty hard. Ben just never gives up. He's never going to give up and his speed is surprising. He's the anchor of the defense. He can hold us together over there."
Just as important, Martin can hold the Vols together off the field, improving their work ethic and image -- items UT coach Derek Dooley holds dear.
"Coach Dooley's big into off-field issues, like your image," said Martin, who grew up in Cincinnati. "He's real big on us understanding that people are always watching us. Being one of the oldest guys on the team, I try not to run around looking sloppy."
Being one of the oldest, wisest guys on the team, he also knows you always need a Plan B in football, just in case injuries deny you your NFL dreams.
"I know I have other options," said Martin. "At some point I want to get into law enforcement."
Given his take on the Vols' odd new Adidas shoes -- which actually appear to have a white Nike swoosh on the inside half with adidas' trademark three stripes on the outside half -- he might make it in public relations.
Asked to evaluate the look, Martin smiled and said, "Adidas is a great sponsor. I love all their products."
But what Thompson has loved best so far was when Martin basically ran through a running back attempting to block him, crashing the back into quarterback Tyler Bray.
"That's when I knew he was back," said Thompson. "That's when everybody knew he was back."
Said Bray, "Yeah, I didn't think Ben could do that yet. The guy's a beast. Big, strong, fast. I'm just glad I don't have to play against him in a real game."
And Tennessee fans are ecstatic that the Vols' 12 regular-season opponents do, their Father Time more than ready to make up for too much lost time as the Vols' defensive anchor.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com