This time last year, Tennessee safety Theo Jackson had accumulated 112 tackles in 44 career games since signing with the Volunteers in 2017.
It qualified as a complete college experience, but the 6-foot-2, 203-pounder from Nashville was given the opportunity for another season by the NCAA due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. Jackson accepted and produced his best year, having racked up 73 tackles, nine tackles for loss and an interception for Josh Heupel's Volunteers heading into next Thursday's Music City Bowl against Purdue.
If the NCAA came calling with another year for Jackson, would he return for even more?
"I love the guys and I love this university and I love what Coach Heupel is doing here, but I think my time is up," a smiling Jackson said during a recent news conference. "I've been here long enough, and it's time for me to step out the door and give somebody else the torch."
Jackson is among Tennessee's seven 2017 signees who endured the flailing finish of the Butch Jones era as newcomers, survived the highs and lows of Jeremy Pruitt's three-year regime that ended in disaster as well, and chose to give the new guy a try when Heupel was hired in January. Defensive linemen Matthew Butler and LaTrell Bumphus, linebacker Solon Page III, offensive lineman K'Rojhn Calbert, tight end Princeton Fant and defensive back Cheyenne Labruzza are the other six, with Butler, Bumphus and Jackson having played since their freshman seasons.
The 2017 signees at Tennessee and anywhere else who played as freshmen and never redshirted no longer have eligibility after this season, but those who did redshirt have the opportunity to return in 2022. Fant and Page already have announced they will do just that, with Fant having revealed his decision earlier this week via social media.
"I just want to play ball and play harder," Fant said. "I want to be a better blocker and a better leader to my team. I also want to be that big brother that younger guys can look up to."
The 6-2, 240-pounder from Nashville has amassed 13 receptions for 149 yards (11.5 yards per catch) and a touchdown this year, and his return along with current redshirt junior Jacob Warren will give Tennessee the same 1-2 punch at that position.
Page made his announcement last week in a news conference. The 6-2, 220-pounder from Atlanta entered this year with just eight career tackles but has collected 38 total stops, 2.5 tackles for loss and a 31-yard interception return for a touchdown that transpired midway through the third quarter of the 56-0 trouncing of Tennessee Tech.
"I'm still trying to get better, and I feel like I didn't have the best season I could possibly have," Page said. "As a first-year defense, everybody is trying to figure out what concept we're trying to get done. Everybody is trying to figure out what our coach is thinking in this situation. Having this first year under our belt is going to be huge.
"We'll have a solidified coaching staff, so we can look at what we did wrong this year that we can improve on next year and move forward from that."
The remaining 2017 Vols signees have wrestled through a 27-32 career mark with no wins over Alabama, Florida or Georgia and with a loss to Georgia State. They experienced the first eight-loss season in program history and an internal investigation into alleged rules violations that resulted in Pruitt's termination, but their patience has been rewarded with better-than-expected 2021 results.
Some of these holdovers will walk out the door after a winning season regardless of the Music City Bowl outcome, while others will look to build on what has been started in recent months.
"They're my brothers from a different mother," Page said of his 2017 classmates. "It's cool having those guys around, and I'm excited for those who are taking the next step and the next chapter in their lives. I'll be rooting for them from here."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.