Inside job

Malik Jackson balked the first time Tennessee's coaches mentioned playing defensive tackle. Now, though, he's looking forward to literally growing into the role.

Jackson transferred from USC to UT last spring so he could play defensive end for a bowl-eligible team. Clearly, things have not worked out as planned. He moved to defensive tackle last month for a 2-6 Vol squad that must win out to qualify for bowl action.

With Tennessee desperate for help at defensive tackle in preseason, Vol coaches naturally turned to the team's biggest defensive end. The 6-5, 265-pound Jackson wasn't interested in moving inside, however.

"At first I didn't want to think about playing tackle," he recalled.

As the season unfolded and the problems at tackle became increasingly evident, however, the coaches asked Jackson a second time to move inside.

"The very first time I was like 'No,'" he recalled. "But they came to me again and said they needed a D-tackle, needed to get all of their best guys on the field, so I said I'd do it."

Defensive line coach Chuck Smith was the deal-clincher.

"Coach Chuck talked to me and said it would be a good thing," Jackson said of the switch to tackle. "As I started playing it, I started liking it. I didn't like it at first but I got used to it."

One thing he likes about tackle is that it provides "an opportunity to make a lot of plays." His stats bear out that point. Jackson's best games at end were 3-tackle performances against Florida and UAB. Conversely, he recorded 6 stops as a tackle in Game 7 vs. Alabama and 6 more in Game 8 at South Carolina.

"At end I wasn't really doing that much," he said. "At tackle I'm contributing a lot more as far as tackles go."

The Vols' head coach has noticed.

"Malik's the most consistent defensive lineman we have and the most productive," Derek Dooley said. "And he couldn't get on the field at USC, as an aside. But he's doing great. I'm glad he's here."

Jackson has done so well since moving to tackle that he has come to view the switch inside as permanent.

"From what Coach Chuck keeps telling me, I think so," he said. "But I'm open to anything ... except nose. I don't think I'd be good at nose. But defensive end and tackle are two positions I think I can play."

The big difference between end and tackle, he says, is the work space. Ends have a lot of room in which to operate, whereas tackles toil in tight quarters. Jackson compares the latter to "playing in a phone booth" but seems to be adjusting well.

"It's a lot harder because you have a lot less space to work out of," he said. "It's just you and the man. That's it. It's instant engagement."

At 265 pounds, Jackson is about average for an end but significantly undersized for a tackle.

"He's about 30 pounds lighter than what he should be in this league at that position," Dooley said, "but he's in there fighting."

Asked if he has put on weight since moving inside, Jackson shook his head.

"I'm kind of steady where I am," he said. "I need to gain weight. That's one of my biggest focuses for this year and the offseason - to get big and look like a defensive tackle."

He said his target weight is 280 to 285 pounds, adding: "That'd be pretty good for me, not too much over that. More muscle, less fat ... that would be good."

Jackson is determined to keep his quickness. It's an advantage he occasionally exploits against the 300-pound offensive linemen he faces.

"Sometimes," he said. "But sometimes you've got to be nice and stout, get down and dirty and physical."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories