NASHVILLE — Things have changed drastically in the 20 years from Derek Dooley’s college football-playing days to now.
Dooley, now Tennessee’s head coach, saw nothing like the issues facing some of his players these days when he was a Virginia wide receiver in 1990.
“When we were in college, it was football, school and girls, and, ‘Where are you going tonight?’ Those were the challenging issues at hand,” Dooley said Sunday night, after his team’s first on-site Music City Bowl practice. “These guys, there’s a lot more stuff flying.”
One of those issues currently belongs to UT sophomore All-Southeastern Conference safety Janzen Jackson, who met up with the team Sunday after missing its Knoxville bowl practices with an unspecified, “very personal” family issue in his native Louisiana.
Dooley still doesn’t want to disclose Jackson’s problem — he said that was purely the player’s decision — but he was certainly pleased with his sophomore star’s Sunday night performance.
“It looks a lot different in the back end, especially when you’re throwing passes on the sideline. He shows up quicker,” Dooley said. “It was good to have him back, and he was in good spirits, and he’s just one of those athletes that doesn’t miss a lot when he’s gone. His biggest catch-up is just going to be schematic. He looked good. He looked the same, so (he looked good).
“I talked to him when he got here. He seems to be doing good. I think ... I mean, we’ll see how the week goes. If it goes like it looks like today, then we expect to see the same Janzen back for the game.”
Dooley said situations like Jackson’s — where a player misses several days with a personal problem — are “rare ... but not rare.” He also cited sophomore tailback David Oku’s recently-missed time to deal with a death in the family in Oklahoma.
Jackson’s issue apparently isn’t of the typical variety, though, according to several within the program. Still, none want to discuss it unless Jackson does first.
I think it happens all the ... no, I shouldn’t say it happens all the time — they don’t miss that bulk of practice — but you’re always dealing with personal issues with these guys. Usually it’s a week, usually it’s a few days, (but) then sometimes it can be longer. And sometimes it can end their career.
“We’re dealing with human beings, and we’re dealing with young men who some of them have to deal with issues greater than the other guys’ and some of them have to deal with issues that none of us ever have to deal with,” Dooley said. “Look, we’ve got guys on the team that have got more issues than anywhere I’ve ever been. We really do. And I respect them for it. I try to get to know them and understand them.
“We’ve got guys whose parents are struggling, in jail, or need money, or they’ve got kids of their own. And they’ve got brothers, who, maybe their mom’s not available to raise them, and they’re over there just trying to survive. It’s unbelievable, some of the issues. And when you talk to them, you become pretty sensitive to what they’re going through.
“They’re dealing with things that a 19- or 20-year old shouldn’t have to be dealing with.”
But, considering football is a business, and the players determine that business’s success, Dooley noted the obvious: Those distractions can be a “concern” on the field.
“Any time you have issues that can effect you, and effect your focus, effect what you’re thinking about, it’s always a concern,” the coach said. “The best thing we can do is try to make him feel a little bit like this is his refuge from all that, and this is his other family, and there’s a lot of people here that love him. And I think Janzen is one of those players that when he puts the helmet on, he loves it. Some guys are like that. They can put their helmet on, and nothing else matters in the word. Some guys, they put the helmet on, and they wear everything that’s going on in the world.
“I’m hopeful he can keep his focus.”
Several teammates said Jackson looked fine on the field Sunday night.
“I can tell you his presence was felt out there, and that’s always a good feeling,” senior defensive end Chris Walker said. “I think he’s going to help us a lot.”
Walker said Jackson seemed “completely focused on football” Sunday night.
“If a player’s not completely focused on football, you can tell by the way he’s practicing and interacting with his teammates,” Walker said. “When we saw Janzen today, he was smiling, having fun with us, and he just picked up where he left off on the field. And you know how he is on the field.”
Junior All-SEC defensive tackle Malik Jackson said Janzen Jackson played “like he was never gone.”
“You’ve got to let home life be home life, and football be football,” Malik added. “You can’t intertwine the two, because once you start doing that, they’re both going to get messed up. It’s just a skill that you learn, just like anything else. It is tough, because ... it’s just tough, man. But you do what you’ve got to do.
“When I have a bad day at school or whatever, I just go to practice, laugh with my buddies and just forget about my day and just have a great time doing something I love with my best friends. It can be a release. It is a release, to be honest with you.”
Monday will be Janzen Jackson’s last opportunity to meet with the media before Thursday’s game. Dooley wants bowl games treated as much like normal games as possible, so his players won’t speak to the press two days before kickoff.
“Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll talk to Janzen, OK,” Dooley said. “And at some point, I’m going to put it on Janzen, whether or not he wants to visit about it publicly or visit about it with you guys. It’s just not my place to make that decision. Do I want to protect him? Of course I do, (like) all of our players. He’s a starting player. He’s our only all-conference player, so I recognize the curiosity factor and your wanting to talk to him, and I respect that. So I think the best thing for me to do is to talk to him about it before I do anything.
“Ultimately, he’s going to have to stand in front of you guys, and y’all are going to ask the questions. And then he’ll either decide to talk openly or talk guarded or not talk at all.”