Momentum is a funny thing.
As the Tennessee football program has learned, the "Big Mo" comes with a sharpened set of claws that can snatch the team, coaches, players and fan base back to reality in a hurry.
Excitement brews each and every August with the college football season ready to commence in September. Programs like Tennessee have aspirations of banner hanging as anything less is considered something of a failure.
With a bevy of sophomores ready to be the nucleus of this year's Volunteers after playing major roles in 2010, chatter around Knoxville slowly started to substitute pessimism for optimism.
However, as has been the case with Tennessee for several years now, the second that momentum nears its pinnacle, an iron fist of negativity comes hammering down on Big Orange County to keep the glass from ever appearing half full.
As the cover and feature article of September's edition of Rocky Top News Magazine boasted (before having to be scrapped minutes before going to press), the Vol secondary was set to line up with returning starters not only in the lineup but a few more on the bench. The unit's featured playmaker, Janzen Jackson, was also the team's most talented product.
With a résumé that includes 22 career starts, 106 tackles, 15 passes defended and six interceptions, Jackson gave defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox a legitimate card to play when gambling with blitz packages knowing that his center fielder could cover as much ground as anyone in the Southeastern Conference and lay the wood upon point of contact.
As worrisome as Jackson was to opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks, the 6-foot, 187-pounder was that much more stress ball-worthy for Tennessee coach Derek Dooley in keeping Jackson on the straight and narrow off the field.
A chance to step away from college life and football altogether from January until late July gave Jackson a chance to see what throwing God-given talent down the toilet is like.
The Lake Charles, La., native sounded and glowed like a young man that realized he got a new lease on life when he spoke with media after a preseason camp practice on Aug. 8: "It feels great to be back out here with my teammates, my friends, out here playing the sport that I love."
When asked about what exactly kept him away from the team, Jackson wasn't exactly transparent with his deficiencies: "It was a lot of stuff that I'd rather not talk about in public."
Nearly six months to the day from the NFL Combine in Indianapolis where Jackson could showcase his ability as a high draft pick, Dooley was forced to roll the security blanket off Jackson and dismiss him from the team.
What'd the five fingers say to the face, Janzen? "SMACK!" The kid just never fully grasped the big picture.
“Although I’m disappointed with this outcome, we will never compromise the long-term organizational values and goals we maintain here at Tennessee,” Dooley said in a press release.
The string that connected Jackson with big-time college football life and NFL opportunities became completely unwound.
Judging by Dooley's comments Tuesday, he knew something was about to happen. As a former Atlanta-based lawyer, Dooley has a flair for damage control.
|Tennessee coach Derek Dooley has done everything he possibly could to get Jackson's life turned in order..|
The most pessimistic way of approaching the situation is that it's yet another of former coach Lane Kiffin's recruits that couldn't stay in school and a sophomore-laden lineup just lost one of the few upperclassmen expected to contribute immensely.
On the other hand, expectations for the 2011 Vols aren't anywhere near what they were in the late 1990s. Simply getting to eight wins (which could be enough to win the SEC Eastern Division) would be an eye-opener for some and considered a firm step in the right direction. It's the 2012 campaign where Vol Nation is pointing and the chances of Jackson returning to Rocky Top next year were as bleak as Dooley showing up for the season opener against Montana without every follicle of hair shellacked in place.
Thus, moving forward before the Vols kick off on Sept. 3 gets them a jump-start on figuring out on what to do at free safety moving forward.
Assuming Tennessee is in its base 4-3 defense, two options come to mind.
Option No. 1 — With junior Marsalis Teague and freshman Justin Coleman battling to start at cornerback opposite redshirt junior Prentiss Waggner, simply starting both Teague and Coleman and rolling Waggner back to free safety alongside sophomore strong safety Brent Brewer makes sense. But, that does take away a physical presence on the edge like Waggner as the 6-2, 185-pounder doesn't carry the burden of being terribly vertically challenged when matching up against the likes of South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey, who's 6-4, 229.
Option No. 2 — In order to minimize the number of moving parts, the staff could simply insert junior college transfer Byron Moore into Jackson's spot. The 6-1, 205-pound Moore spent a year at Southern California before one decorated season at Los Angeles Harbor Community College. Finding a spot to get Moore onto the field has been perplexing thus far but the redshirt sophomore's skill set may lend more favorably to safety than at cornerback.
Dooley and his staff repeat one another on a consistent basis in referencing how they'll go about deciding on a starting lineup. Taking that concept to mind, it's apparent that he, Wilcox and secondary coach Terry Joseph will do everything possible to get the top 4-5 defensive backs on the field.
The question is: Who are those guys?
The answer comes in 10 days.