Malik Jackson called transferring to Tennessee in July 2010 “a blind leap of faith that went really well,” but he didn’t expect the Volunteers to go 11-14 in his two seasons at UT.
“I wouldn’t have changed anything,” Jackson said after UT’s 10-7 loss to Kentucky in his final game as a Vol. “I want to say thank you to the coaches and everybody who gave me the opportunity to come here and play for them. It was a great experience. I’m glad I came out here and had an opportunity to play and meet new people and learn new things about myself. I wouldn’t take anything back.”
The All-SEC 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive lineman doesn’t regret leaving Southern Cal after his sophomore season. When the Trojans and coach Lane Kiffin were hit with NCAA sanctions, including a postseason ban for two years, it allowed Jackson and the rest of USC’s upperclassmen to transfer to another Division-I school without having to sit out a season. He played a reserve role for the Trojans in 2008 and ’09, recording 22 tackles and 5.5 sacks as a defensive end in his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Jackson decided to come to Knoxville, making him a fan favorite immediately because he left Kiffin and Co. for the Vols.
“I didn’t even know where Tennessee was on the map,” Jackson said. “I didn’t know anything about Tennessee. I just came here with an open mind. The coaches said they were going to give me the opportunity to play and show what I have. I came out here and worked really hard, and they gave it to me. I made a lot of friends, I learned a lot and I’m just glad that I had the opportunity to come in here and play.”
As a junior at UT, he immediately became a key player for the Vols’ defensive line. Four games into last season, Jackson gave in to coaches’ advice and slid inside to tackle, where he started the last 20 games for the Vols.
He finished the 2010 season with 48 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and five sacks. This year, Jackson was UT’s best player at each of the four defensive line positions, and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox took advantage of Jackson’s versatility, moving him around on the line, especially in pass-rushing situations.
“Malik is a great defensive lineman,” sophomore defensive tackle Maurice Couch said. “He’s officially a defensive end, but for him to play inside, it takes a lot of heart and a lot of straining to and stuff to do. Malik helped me out a lot through the season. I learned a lot from him. I better my technique because of him. Him and (senior defensive end) Ben Martin, I really appreciate everything they did and it’s a sad thing they didn’t get to beat Kentucky for their last game.”
The loss to the Wildcats means no bowl game for the Vols.
“I never thought my senior year would go like this,” Jackson said. “I kind of wanted one more month with these guys, but it just wasn’t in God’s plan. It just didn’t go right for us.”
Still, Jackson’s impact on the Vols’ program didn’t go unnoticed.
“Malik, he’s been great,” UT coach Derek Dooley said in early November. “Had a great attitude, really matured as a person. He’s matured as a player; he’s been a great team player.”
And Jackson shares the same sentiment for the coach that brought him to Tennessee.
“Dooley’s going to do big things,” he said. “He’s been building this team really good, and I have no doubt they’re going to come out here ready to play, especially after this season. I just feel like they need to grow up and sit back and see where the seniors were coming from and go out there and play for something bigger than themselves.”