Tennessee fifth-year senior defensive back Theo Jackson is having quite the breakout season for the Volunteers.
Just don't label him as any kind of overnight success.
"You win games not on the weekend but throughout the week," secondary coach Willie Martinez said. "When we all got here as a staff, some of the things that Theo did right from the beginning — his attention to detail was phenomenal. He was on time. He was early. He was prepared for meetings. Leading up to spring ball, he was ready for it. His communication skills were outstanding between teammates, and he was very productive and consistent for all 15 practices.
"He took it to the summer and was outstanding on and off the field. He's our leader on our back end, and he's one of our leaders on our team."
When asked about the leadership aspect of his game, a smiling Jackson said, "I've been here for a while, so I've seen everything."
Jackson started six of Tennessee's 10 games last year at the "star" position — which is his spot this season as well — and had 31 tackles, one tackle for loss, an interception and a fumble recovery. Through the first two games this season against Bowling Green and Pittsburgh, the 6-foot-2, 203-pounder from Nashville already has racked up 22 stops, 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
Back in the days when Martinez played defensive back for the Miami Hurricanes and Vols first-year head coach Josh Heupel excelled as an Oklahoma quarterback, having a safety lead the team in tackles was viewed as a travesty, but those days have expired.
"As the game is played in more space, some of those safeties are playing closer to the box," Heupel said. "Some of them are also closer on some of the perimeter screen game, so those guys are going to have tackles because they're going to have to tackle in space. If you look at Theo, he's playing closer to the football, and that's why you're seeing his numbers as high as they are.
"He's doing a great job of playing the position that he's playing, and he's just been the model of consistency. He's a veteran guy who's extremely mature on and off the field."
Jackson, a former three-star signee out of Overton High School, played in 11 games as a freshman backup safety in 2017. He has played both cornerback and safety during his time with the Vols and is using the NCAA's allotted extra year of eligibility as the result of the coronavirus outbreak.
A 10-tackle performance that included a lost-yardage stop last season at Arkansas had served as his busiest performance, but Jackson has been topping that on a weekly basis. The Vols enter Saturday's home game against Tennessee Tech eager to rebound from last weekend's 41-34 loss to visiting Pittsburgh, and he is far from content on how things are going.
"Defensively, we left a lot of plays on the field," Jackson said. "This one kind of hurt. My technique wasn't where I wanted it to be. Going forward, it's going to be picked up."
When Martinez was Georgia's defensive coordinator and secondary coach in 2005, the Southeastern Conference champion Bulldogs possessed three of the league's first-team defensive backs — cornerbacks Tim Jennings and DeMario Minter and safety Greg Blue. Martinez knows what special performers look like on the last line of defense, and he quickly admits he already has one in Knoxville.
"When Theo is wrong, he says he's wrong," Martinez said. "He owns up to it and takes ownership, and I think the guys feed off of that. These first two games are exactly what we've seen out of him from Sunday through Friday, so I'm not surprised.
"I've been blessed to be able to do what I'm doing for a long time, and I've been around some really good players who really get it. When you've got the right one like him, he's going to make everybody else better."
Heupel said during Wednesday's SEC teleconference that this week's starting quarterback has yet to be decided.
When asked whether Joe Milton, the starter to this point, would be able to play, Heupel said: "He was out on the practice field today, but I don't know that he'll be available on Saturday. Some of those guys who were nicked up after the game are guys who are going to continue to progress through the week, and we'll see where we're at as we get closer to kickoff."
That assessment apparently included the injured tailback tandem of Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans.
"Both of those guys we don't have a final word on yet," Heupel said. "We're hopeful that those guys will be able to play."
Big intro expected
Saturday will mark the debut of edge rusher Byron Young, who sat out the Vols' first two contests due to an NCAA eligibility suspension.
"I expect him to play at a championship level," Heupel said. "He's been really consistent in his effort and technique playing on the edge for us through the course of training camp. We've missed him in a big way here in these first couple of weeks, and I'm excited for him to get on the field and go compete.
"I expect him to be able to apply pressure to the quarterback and do a really good job in the run game, too."