KNOXVILLE -- Jacques Smith still grins when he talks football.
Even when the Tennessee linebacker's disappointing sophomore season becomes the topic of conversation, there's hardly a change in the former Ooltewah High School star's demeanor.
There is, however, a fresh start and a new position in a new defense for Smith as he enters his junior season with the Volunteers.
"Last year was definitely humbling, especially after the Kentucky loss," Smith said. "It just made you want to go back and re-evaluate yourself and make sure that you're doing everything that you need have done. It made me change my goals and become more of a team player.
"It was humbling for everyone."
Smith was one of many examples of precisely that. The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder entered his sophomore season with high hopes and perhaps higher expectations after showing glimpses of excellence as a freshman. Despite his small role as a pass-rush specialist, Smith earned All-Southeastern Conference honors from the league's coaches.
It didn't pan out that way. After a decent start to the season, Smith virtually disappeared. The havoc he was supposed to wreak in opposing backfields never happened.
"It was a great learning year for me," Smith admitted. "I was young, in my second year in the SEC, and I learned a lot."
Bad effort or a lacking work ethic weren't the culprits. Smith was simply out of position as a 245-pound defensive end in the SEC. UT coach Derek Dooley said as much earlier this week.
The lowest point of the season, Smith said, was when his weight fell to 240, which isn't a good formula against big, athletic offensive tackles with long arms.
"It didn't work out," he said.
Smith eventually lost his starting spot and finished the season without a sack and just 7.5 tackles for loss. He had two sacks and five tackles for loss as a freshman in less playing time. There were still glimpses of good, like the forced fumble against Middle Tennessee State and the six-tackle performance in the season-ending loss to the Wildcats.
The page has been turned.
"I've seen almost everything you could see from being in the SEC, changed coaching staffs, everything," he said. "Now we have a new defensive coordinator and we have a new defensive scheme. It seems great. It's fitting our personnel, and I'm excited."
In coordinator Sal Sunseri's 3-4 scheme, Smith is the "Jack," the hybrid defensive end/linebacker position that's a coveted one among players. Though it's subject to change with the Vols mixing and matching their personnel to the scheme, Willie Bohannon, himself a former undersized defensive end, is Smith's main competition at the position.
Though former coordinator Justin Wilcox moved Smith around his defense, Smith struggles to contain his excitement in discussing his new position.
"They're putting me in more of an attacking position, and that's the thing I love about it," he said. "I'm always attacking and going to hunt the ball. That's what I like to do."
Dooley said Smith is the "perfect" size for the position, but that's only half the adjustment Smith must make in taking the next step. He admitted that he pressed and didn't play within the defense at times last season but said Sunseri is helping him develop into a defender who plays calmer and with more patience.
"Jac's challenge is playing with scheme discipline," Dooley said. "If he could just focus on consistency -- and he's working on that -- to put himself in a position to let his abilities take over, then he'll be a really good player. That's his big challenge."
With a new coach, a new position and a new lease on his football life, Smith is ready to attack those challenges in the same fashion in which he'd like to attack opposing quarterbacks.
"What jumps out to me about it is you're able to just go get the ball," he said of his new position. "You're really almost set free. You're the man that's set free in the defense to just go attack and run to the ball. You're just being a football player."
And that elicits more smiling.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...