KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's entirely new offensive line enters 2014 with six combined collegiate starts, and Marcus Jackson has five of those, all as a true freshman in 2011.
Yet Jackson essentially is a newcomer this season.
The Volunteers knew they were set to lose four seniors and one NFL-bound junior after 2013, so they elected to redshirt the 6-foot-2, 307-pounder from Florida after he played in every game his first two seasons.
"It was a decision for the team," Jackson said after practice Saturday morning. "Everything was good. I did start my freshman year, but I did learn a lot of things in that redshirt year, and I'm very happy about it.
"It's not always about what you want to do, it's what you need to do, and I needed to redshirt, for the betterment of the team and myself."
It was a bit of a risky move for Tennessee's new staff to redshirt Jackson, who had shown he was a proven commodity at left guard. Not only was a hit to the Vols' depth if any of their five starters got hurt last season, but it's tricky asking a healthy player who has played to sit out a year. Jackson was battling Alex Bullard for a starting spot last offseason, too.
Yet the move appears to have worked out, and Tennessee now has Jackson for another two years.
The 2011 Freshman All-SEC selection said sitting out last year helped him mentally, and he and the rest of the Vols' new starters up front are eager to prove they can be just as good as last year's group, which sent four players to the NFL scouting combine in February.
"There's motivation from a personal standpoint as a player," Jackson said, "to always go out there and prove that you belong. I don't think it's a last-year-to-this-year thing. It's just always as a player and a competitor."
Tennessee tailback Marlin Lane elected to spend Christmas break in Knoxville preparing for his senior season rather than return home "just to get my mind together and clear up my off-field situation."
It's paid off, as Lane enters spring coming off a solid offseason.
"I just thought, 'It's my last year,' and my freshman, sophomore and junior years, it went up and down," he said. "I decided if I get a month to myself and get my mind right, I could come in strong this offseason.
"Time's going down by seconds, and I just said every day, every second, I'm going to just give my all."
That's not always been the case for Lane, who was suspended from the program for the end of spring practice last season. He's always been rather quiet and laid back, and despite flashing some of his ability, he was never able to take over the primary ball-carrier role for either Tennessee's former or current coaching staff.
Now may be his best chance to grab hold of that spot, though he'll have to contend with Jalen Hurd, the five-star freshman who enrolled in January. Tennessee hasn't yet put on pads for a spring practice yet, so it's hard to tell where the backfield pecking order stands.
For now, Lane is trying to be a veteran presence, which requires him to change his style.
"It's like I'm coaching them, too, and playing the game at the same time," he said.
Tennessee began last season with six seniors on the defensive line, but end Jordan Williams is the lone senior there for the Vols heading into 2014.
"I didn't come here with any of these kids, man," he said with a laugh. "I came here with Ben Martin and Steve Fowlkes and all them. I feel like they look up to me, and I have to hold that."
The 6-5, 260-pounder from Gainesville, Fla., started three games early last season when Jacques Smith hurt his thumb and five games as a sophomore, and though he's shown glimpses of his ability in recent seasons, he's never put it all together consistently. He's penciled in as a starter this spring, and he's trying to be an example for the younger defensive ends.
"I know what I need to do, and I know what they need to do, so I'm just trying to help them along," Williams said. "Right now I try to look at it as it's mine to lose. As long as I keep it going and keep improving, I feel like I'll have it held.
"Definitely everything's up for grabs, but I mean, we're all improving together because we need everybody. We're young."
Junior college transfer Von Pearson made another play in Saturday's practice when he caught a touchdown pass on a fade pattern against cornerback Cam Sutton when the Vols went into a sudden-change period. Pearson juked Sutton badly to take a short pass the distance in Friday's session. He's already a favorite of Tennessee's coaches. ... It was a bad day for the Vols' kickers. George Bullock missed five times from around 45 yards, and neither Derrick Brodus nor Patrick Toole, two walk-ons, hit from that distance. Aaron Medley, the Vols' 2014 kicker signee, won't arrive until summer. ... Tennessee hosted another junior day Saturday, and the setup for prospects and their families on Tennessee's indoor field included food, cornhole, video games, the Vols' 1998 national title trophy and an in-house deejay.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org
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 ...