For any young football team, the greatest backbone of growth comes from returning experience.
In today’s high-paced SEC landscape, it is nearly impossible to build a program from the ground up. Rather, what is necessary is a strong returning base to build upon. Coach Derek Dooley is fortunate to have that base in his two top returning defensive backs: Janzen Jackson and Prentiss Waggner. However, for both players, this offseason was different than anyone they had ever experienced.
 Both Jackson and Waggner were plagued this offseason by uncertainty. One player was unsure of where he would play, while the other did not even know if he would even play again.
Jackson’s offseason story has been a well documented event in Knoxville for the past six months.
Jackson withdrew from school in early February to deal with “personal issues.” At that point, it was not even clear to Jackson whether or not he would come back to Tennessee.
“I didn’t think I was gone,” Jackson said. “But I thought there was some chance I wouldn’t come back. I had to get some stuff in order.”
While Jackson was away from Tennessee, Tennessee was not away from Jackson.
At least once a week during Jackson’s sabbatical, Dooley met with his star free safety to make sure he was doing the things necessary to get his life in order.
“We have had a lot of one-on-ones,” Dooley said. “Not as a coach and player, but as an older guy trying to help a younger guy. I’m just glad he listened. It took him about 28 meetings, but on the 29th he started listening.”
With the support of his coaches and teammates, and his own perseverance, Jackson was able to overcome his issues and re-enroll in the university on July 6th for summer classes.
I did everything I possibly could to get back,” Jackson said. “And it paid off.”
     While he was cleared to participate in all team activities, his long offseason break had some negative effects on his physical shape.
 “I felt it the first couple days,” Jackson said. “Those six months I had off were killing me, somewhere in my kidneys or something was hurting me, maybe my lungs… But as an athlete you got to stay in shape and take advantage of weights and conditioning, and I did. And I’m ready.”
For Jackson, his offseason was based on whether or not he would return to the game. While it would seem that that was mostly a personal problem, Jackson’s time off had a great effect on Waggner, who spent his spring and summer in limbo on where he would play.
While many players might have complained about the uncertainty that Waggner faced this off-season, he instead turned it into a positive by making it an opportunity for bettering himself and the team.
 “The whole summer I have been preparing myself to be the best player I can be,” Waggner said. “Janzen had some off the field issues and we supported him with whatever he was going through… Once he came back it was a big relief for me. It was so much fun having Janzen in that secondary playing with me.”
Waggner, now a junior, is starting to embrace his new role as a leader on this young team.
“I need to be more consistent every Saturday and more of a leader in the backend,” Wagner said. “… I need to take charge in the secondary and get all my guys lined up as far as corners, safeties and nickels.”
Waggner’s team-first mentality is a positive sign for the UT football program, which before Dooley’s arrival was maligned by conflicting, and often selfish, personalities. Despite the success he had last year—Waggner was a preseason All-SEC pick—his attitudes have not changed. When asked what position he will play with Jackson coming back, as both are naturally free safeties, Waggner proudly proclaimed his unselfish attitude.
“Wherever the coaches need me,” he said. “All fall camp, I’ve been practicing at corner and safety, and also some work in at nickel. Wherever the team needs me, and wherever I can help the team out.”
After the Vols third and final scrimmage of fall camp, Dooley said Waggner was enriched as a starter at one of the team’s two cornerback spots.