Wiedmer: Jackson's return is best news UT's had all summer

Wiedmer: Jackson's return is best news UT's had all summer

July 7th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Prior to Wednesday the only good news from the Tennessee athletic department this summer had come on those too rare occasions there had been no news.

The Big Orange brass was forced to meet with the NCAA Committee on Infractions. In a closely related event, Mike Hamilton stepped down as athletic director. In a vaguely related event, basketball players Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris both jumped to the NBA. Immature defensive lineman Montori Hughes was dismissed.

Yet as bad as those foul four moments were, all of them combined may not match in negativity what the Wednesday return of defensive back Janzen Jackson means to the Vols in positive vibes.

With Jackson back in fold, UT's defense is officially dangerous. With Jackson on the field, the Vols have the closest thing to former UT All-American Eric Berry's ability to totally disrupt and alter opposing offenses.

With Jackson in the lineup, the Big Orange is back in the bowl hunt, which might have been a stretch without him.

In fact, it could be argued that Jackson is the Vols' most valuable player if he indeed returns to the field this fall after dealing with personal problems over the winter and spring.

Yet it also is instructive that the Tennessee press release regarding Jackson's enrollment in the second semester of summer school and his expected return to the football team arrived in our email inboxes with nary a quote.

Not a, "Boy, we're sure glad to have Janzen back," from UT coach Derek Dooley.

Not a, "I really appreciate Coach Dooley's faith in me, and I look forward to rejoining my teammates as we pursue a SEC title," from Jackson.

Caution from both sides appears to be the strategy of the day and that plan would seem to be an extremely prudent one. Much as Jackson surely wants to play one more season on Saturdays before heading off to the NFL, he knows he has academic work to do, as well as confidence to restore among his teammates and coaches.

Much as Dooley has always said he wants Jackson back after the rising junior withdrew from school last winter for personal reasons, he also knows that not even Jackson knows for sure that he's ready to return to the grind and pressure of being a major college athlete.

As good as the Louisiana native has been on the field since arriving in Knoxville, Jackson's struggles have been many off the field. Maybe this extended time away has steeled him and matured him. Or maybe it has merely delayed another round of frustration, embarrassment and heartache for both the player and the program.

But there is little question that Jackson's presence makes the Vols better on game day. He tied for the team lead in interceptions last year with five. He totaled 69 tackles and made second team All-SEC. He may not just be the closest thing to Berry on this current UT team. He may be the closest thing to Berry in the entire SEC.

That said, Dooley doesn't seem like the kind of guy who's ready to give Jackson more than one more chance. He may have willingly excused the player's brief exit from the team prior to last year's Music City Bowl, and he displayed great patience over Jackson's winter withdrawal from school. But a coach who constantly preaches putting the team first must eventually practice that mantra or lose his team's respect.

At the time of Jackson's last exit, Dooley said, "He's clearly reached a point where the personal issues have become much greater than his ability to manage workouts and school."

For the short-term health of the program and the long-term health of the player, let's all hope the reverse of that is now true.