In 1999, the call was easy. Travis Stephens was sitting on the depth chart behind a phenomenal talent in Jamal Lewis and another NFL player in Travis Henry who had just finished being the feature back on a national championship team. The third running back on a depth chart typically doesn't get too many carries, and Lewis, Henry, and Stephens were all in the same class, so just biding time and waiting for the others to graduate wasn't an option. So Stephens asked Coach Phillip Fulmer for a redshirt. It was granted.
Stephens sacrificed a year of play in which he would've been third on the depth chart, and in return, he was eligible in 2001 after Lewis and Henry were gone. What did he do with his extra year? He ran for over 1400 yards, had two 200-yard games--including an all-time great performance in a 34-32 win in Gainesville--led the SEC in yards per game, and landed himself on several all-America teams. He was also a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, won by Luke Staley, and my only explanation for that is that the voters didn't watch the Florida game.
In 2013, the decision is a bit tougher. Marcus Jackson isn't buried on the depth chart--he went into fall camp in a legitimate battle with Alex Bullard for the staring left guard spot. Even after losing the battle, he seemed the natural choice for the 6th man along the offensive line, a role he filled ably in 2012 and that promised plenty of playing time in 2013. Furthermore, the players ahead of Marcus Jackson aren't in his class. Both starters at guard are seniors, and Jackson could've gone into 2013 with the expectation of a significant back-up role followed by a starting spot the following year.
But, unless disaster strikes, it seems that Marcus Jackson is redshirting. When asked after the Austin Peay game why Jackson didn't play, Butch Jones responded that the staff knows what they have in Jackson and wanted to see what they had behind him. But five more games have gone by, and Jackson still hasn't played, showing Jones' evaluation explanation to be at best a part of the story.
Tennessee will graduate four players on the offensive line this year, and the fifth is expected to jump the NFL. And behind them is a gaping hole--the 2011 recruiting class (apart from Jackson and Antonio Richardson, who is likely NFL-bound after this season) includes just one player who has seen minutes in more than three games this season, and the 2012 class included literally no one on the offensive line. The 2014 offensive line appears to be Jackson, redshirt junior Kyler Kerbyson, and a whole bunch hoping that redshirt junior Mack Crowder can make the transition into a starting role and that the first and second-year players from Butch Jones' first two recruiting classes can make immediate impact.
And if Jackson exhausts his eligibility after 2014, the 2015 line is Kerbyson, Crowder, and mystery. The Vols will have to hope Derek Dooley's pair of 2013 linemen can make an impact or rely heavily on the 2014 recruiting class. Based on history, the former seems frightening. Based on the conventional wisdom that an offensive lineman's target for making legitimate contributions is his third year in the program (ideally, his redshirt sophomore season), the latter doesn't seem much better.
And Butch Jones needs the 2015 line to be good. Fans will give him a partial pass in 2013 and 2014 because of what Dooley left him, but they'll expect results in 2015. And at the skill positions, 2015 should be plenty of time for Jones to have recruited and developed talent. Just look at what Charlie Strong did last season with a team full of sophomores in key positions--most notably quarterback. But counting on 2014 recruits to provide the backbone of the 2015 offensive front in a dicey proposition. And that's where Marcus Jackson comes in. With a redshirt this year, Jones could have three redshirt seniors anchoring the line in 2015 with a true junior (the only Butch Jones recruit among the 2013 lineman) starting alongside them. And assuming Dontavius Blair--one of the most important recruits in the 2014 class--signs and enrolls without a hitch, the Vols could have five upperclassmen starting along the line. That's a far cry from the three Tennessee was facing when Blair was leaning to Auburn and Jackson's eligibility was ending after 2014.
In short, Butch Jones has made a small sacrifice in 2013 in exchange for a potentially big reward in 2015. Would Jackson help the Vols win games this year? Absolutely. Depth on the offensive line is important, and Jackson is known to provide quality minutes. But, while he would've made some impact this year, he has the potential to make a huge impact in 2015, a year when the skill players should be in place to turn Tennessee's goals from just making a bowl to winning a championship. The Vols lost very little when Travis Stephens redshirted in 1999, but they gained a lot--culminating in an SEC East crown and a top ten ranking--from having him around in 2001. The Vols may sacrifice a bit more by redshirting Jackson in 2013, but Jones can hope they get the same kind of payoff in 2015.