Remember that feel-good mood we woke up in this morning, Vols fans? You know, the one that sang to us that we'd be free of the potential of NCAA penalties after today and the focus could be on the present and future without concern?
Don't lose that pep in your step because of Janzen Jackson.
In case you've been under a rock, the junior safety with All-American potential was booted off the team by UT coach Derek Dooley this morning. ESPN reported that sources indicate it was failed drug tests, something we all figured but nobody could confirm. This is unfortunate and sad news, to say the least.
No matter how long a leash Jackson was ever given, he was always going to wriggle free of the collar "rules" and "discipline" bound around his neck. Maybe, hopefully this is what Jackson needs. I know cutting bait now is what UT needs.
What happened today could have happened tomorrow. It could have happened the week before the Florida game. It probably should have happened last December when Jackson was allowed to miss bowl practice for dealing with "personal issues." Still, Dooley gave his talented junior chance after chance. To sit here and say Jackson being arguably the best player on UT's roster didn't have anything to do with the length of his leash would be ridiculous. But I honestly believe Dooley thought standing by this young man may save him.
As so many parents of addicts have learned in the past, sometimes the people you try to help the most will hurt you the most in the end. [Editor's note: I'm not saying Jackson is an addict. All we have now is ESPN's "sources" and a couple of UT media outlets saying that he failed a drug test.] There is no doubt Jackson hurt himself, his team, his coaches and his university's already rehabilitating reputation by his latest -- and last -- failure to adhere to team rules.
But I don't mourn the loss of Jackson.
His dismissal definitely hurts the team. But, UT fans, repeat after me: IT DOES NOT MEAN THE END OF THE SEASON. We all want the Lane Kiffin Stink off our program, and though he recruited some kids who are helping us rebuild to where we want to be, there were some questionable players he left behind. Few have as shady a history as Jackson. He's simply made dumb decisions repeatedly. That's harsh, but it has to be said. Or, as former Vol receiver Jayson Swain so eloquently put it in a recent tweet:
@JaysonSwain I'm sorry but u got to have problems to piss dirty at the fall camp drug test. EVERYBODY knows when that one is.
True dat, Jayson. True dat.
I hate it for the Vols and the coaches who stood beside him, but I don't hate it for Jackson. I truly hope this is what he needs to get his life on track. I'm rooting for him even though I'm angry with him right now. The bottom line is his is a life that needs to be changed, regardless of his football career.
As for the Vols, we may not be better for this on the field this season, but we'll be better off as a program. I apologize if I seem calloused toward an individual who needed only to stay clean for three months before cashing in on a payday worth millions, yet failed. It's difficult to comprehend his decisions.
Also, while this certainly will not help Tennessee this year, I'm not so certain it affects the bottom line all that much. We are going to win at least six games -- Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo, MTSU, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. There are a couple of true swing games, most notably being Georgia. Then there are several games that we shouldn't win regardless of having Jackson on the team or not. It's going to be six wins, and the other two that were out there are still possibilities.
Make no mistake, you don't replace a talent like Jackson. There aren't many out there. But Tennessee is DEEP in the secondary. That doesn't necessarily mean the Vols are loaded with super-talented players like Jackson, but there are enough good players that Terry Joseph should be able to find a combination that works.
Will Prentiss Waggner move to safety, allowing Marsalis Teague and Justin Coleman to start at cornerback? That's a possibility, though it definitely takes UT's most instinctive corner out of his best position. Can Byron Moore shift back to safety and play it well enough to be an adequate center fielder in Jackson's stead? Is Brian Randolph ready for prime time?
We'll see how these things shake out within the next 10 days. It's also possible that we're going to be mixing and matching those first couple of games to try to find what the best group is in time for Florida.
Questions loom now where they didn't this morning, that's for sure. One thing that isn't questionable is this: Dooley made the tough decision, but he made the right one. It's impossible to build a program when there's a crumbling rock in its foundation. Jackson was a weak spot. What if Jackson really did mean an extra win this year but we only won seven and his only legacy was the players' belief that Dooley played favorites?
Instead, what happened today sent a message to everybody. It sent a message to the players that nobody is bigger than the program. It sent a message to the freshmen that it doesn't matter where you are on the depth chart, you are not exempt from following rules. It sent a message to the fans that the days of having to accept a program predicated on the presence of players with off-the-field issues are over. It sent a message to everybody who cares anything about recruiting that character is an immeasurable quality in prospect evaluations. And this entire Jackson Episode sent a message to recruits and their parents that Dooley will stand by you and help you to get through your problems -- as is part of the Vol For Life program -- but if you repeatedly fail to take advantage, you will be cast aside for the greater good.
It stinks that it had to happen, but it had to. This team and this program will be better for it. We all want wins. But we want more than anything else to not have to go through a period of time that we've had to endure for the past decade -- a time of embarrassment, of investigations, of coaching changes, of player attrition, ON TOP OF LOSING. Maybe we have to lose a little more to get to where we need to be as a program, but one player -- even the best player -- is not worth compromising everything you're trying to build.
So, breathe easy, Tennessee fans. The bottom line is, by UT's lofty standards, the Vols were going to be mediocre with or without JJ. He was going to be gone to the NFL after this season, and we were going to be moving on without him as we build for the future, anyway.
It's sad that this happened, but are any of us REALLY surprised it happened? I know I'm not. I'm only surprised by the defeatist attitude we continue to wallow in while our coach is trying to change the culture that has infested this program and gotten us to where we currently sit. I've catered to it and immersed myself in it, and I won't anymore.
I'm still happy today in spite of this. The NCAA cloud is gone, and our football coach has the marbles to make a move that will benefit this football program, perhaps not today or this season but for the freshmen and sophomores that are the true building blocks for the new regime. Leadership is forged in difficult times, and for all the flak the new team motto has gotten, it's certainly fitting today. Opportunity is now here. Jackson wasted his.