Malik's mistake

Sometimes being in the wrong place at the right time works out pretty well. Just ask Tennessee defensive tackle Malik Jackson.

As Memphis quarterback Ryan Williams drifted back to pass in the third quarter of Saturday night's game at Liberty Bowl Stadium, Jackson drifted back toward the Vol secondary. When Williams tried to throw the ball over the middle, Jackson leaped to intercept it, then returned it 44 yards to set up a Tennessee touchdown.

Clearly, Williams wasn't expecting a Vol defensive tackle to be 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. Tennessee's defensive coordinator wasn't expecting it, either. That's because Malik Jackson wasn't following his assignment; he was following some inner voice.

"I kind of dropped back - which I wasn't supposed to do - but I got the interception and just started running," he recalled.

If he wasn't supposed to drop back, why did he?

"I just did it," he said. "I can't even tell you why."

When one reporter suggested Jackson "smelled out the play," the good-natured Vol junior laughed, nodded and replied: "Exactly."

Ultimately, no matter what caused Jackson to fall back into zone coverage, the ploy worked.

"I was supposed to kind of be over the center a little bit," he said, "but there was a misunderstanding between me and the coach (defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox). Hopefully, I'll get another one (interception) doing it the right way."

Head coach Derek Dooley didn't realize Jackson's interception came on a missed assignment until he met with the media two days after the fact.

"I didn't know that," Dooley said. "The defensive coaches didn't tell me that. They must have kept it a secret when we watched the film together. I said, ‘This hole coverage works really good,' and they go, ‘Yeah.'"

Regardless, Tennessee's players and coaches have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of Jackson's interception return. Caught from behind at the Memphis 21-yard line, Malik jokingly blamed his failure to score on Vol defensive end Chris Walker.

"I told C-Walk it was his fault I didn't score because he didn't block the quarterback," Jackson said.

Upon being told that Walker said he would've scored on the play, Jackson laughed and replied: "C-Walk said that? Yeah, well, I would've blocked for him because I'm a good teammate."

There's a lot more laughing and joking among the Vols this week than last week. As expected, snapping a four-game losing streak has lifted the mood considerably.

"Everybody finally has a smile on their face," Jackson said. "Everybody's coming in happy because we finally won one after all that losing. We just want to keep it going, keep winning and having fun ... like it should be."

With a 3-6 record, Tennessee can earn a bowl bid by beating Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky the next three weekends. The coaching staff doesn't want the players thinking that far ahead, of course.

"Coach Dooley told us to just take it one week at a time," Jackson said. "We really don't listen to outsiders. We know what we've got to do and we know that people want us to go to a bowl game. We just try to win every week."

Tennessee's defensive line has taken a lot of heat this year because of its failure to record sacks. After registering just 10 in the first eight games, however, the Vols recorded 5 last weekend.

"We have a lot of confidence because we finally got some sacks on the board," Jackson noted. "We got off the blocks a lot better. All of the things we worked on during the week we did a lot better, so we've got a lot of confidence coming into this next game."

The confidence of Tennessee's defensive front is owed in large part to the progress made by Malik Jackson. Since moving from end to tackle, he has posted 6 tackles, 6 tackles and 8 tackles the past three weeks. His most productive performance at end was a mere 3 stops.

Obviously, the guy is a lot more productive at tackle than end. He thinks he knows why.

"Coach Chuck (Smith) has a great defensive line out there, so it makes it a lot easier for me to make plays when I've got C-Walk and Gerald (Williams) on the outside, Montori (Hughes) and Vic Thomas on the inside," Jackson said. "I've got playmakers around me."

Having some time to grow more comfortable at tackle has increased his productivity, as well.

"I'm still kind of getting used to working in tight spaces and getting off blocks," he said. "But it's working out pretty good for me. I'm having a lot of tackles and I got a few sacks this week. I'm really encouraged."

So is Tennessee's head coach.

"Malik's been just a tremendous boost for us inside," Dooley said. "We need more of him. He was very disruptive in the (Memphis) game. He got three tackles for loss, a couple of sacks, a lot of tackles and an interception. I hope he can keep playing that way."

Even if he occasionally drifts into coverage when he isn't supposed to.

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