Demoted but delighted

One Tennessee football player lost his first-team job but gained perspective this spring. Sign in or subscribe now for the story.

When you're a first-teamer as a freshman and a second-teamer as a sophomore, that represents a demotion. So why on Earth is Marcus Jackson smiling these days?

Basically, the Tennessee guard recognizes that he was thrown to the wolves before he was ready as a rookie last fall. Now he's getting the seasoning he needs working behind rising senior Dallas Thomas, a two-year starter who moved from left tackle to left guard during the just-concluded spring practice.

"Everything's working out good," said Jackson, a 6-foot-2, 318-pound rising sophomore from Vero Beach, Fla. "I can take my time, working on me getting better and watching the guy in front of me to make sure I learn everything."

With four first-teamers returning from Tennessee's 2010 offensive line, few observers expected Jackson to start in 2011. After playing a backup role in the first seven games, however, he started Game 8 versus South Carolina at left guard. He held the job for the Vols' final five games, earning first-team freshman All-America recognition from Phil Steele.

"Playing last year was good," Jackson conceded. "You got the learning experience, got thrown in the fire."

The problem with getting throw into the fire, of course, is that you get burned. Jackson can appreciate this fact now that he's learning by watching a veteran.

"Now I get to see everything," he said. "Everything slows down now, so it's a lot better."

Although he learned more by watching this spring than he did by playing last fall, Jackson picked up some valuable lessons during the 2011 season.

"Every play you've got to go hard," he said. "You can't get tired here and there. You've got to learn to go hard every play, learn to compete at 100 percent every snap."

While fans were surprised when Jackson cracked the starting lineup last October, he was not. Vol coaches told him to get ready when he enrolled at mid-term in January of 2011.

"Winter I was told I was going to be in the starting lineup. Spring I was," he recalled. "During the season I really worked in practice, and it made starting not that hard."

Jackson actually started the second half of Game 7 against Alabama at left guard. That helped prepare him to start the first half of Game 8 versus South Carolina.

"The Alabama game I some rotations; I was kind of on the spot," he said. "That's when I got thrown in there, so South Carolina really wasn't too bad."

Jackson is one of three Vol linemen with starting experience who do not project to start in 2012. The other two are James Stone (15 starts) and Darin Gooch (6). That suggests depth in the offensive front is pretty stout.

"It's really good, especially since we've got guys in front of us that have played since their freshman year," Jackson said. "You get to learn watching film and you get to carry it over."

Except for rising sophomore left tackle Antonio Richardson, Tennessee's projected O-line starters have loads of experience. Left guard Dallas Thomas and right tackle Ja'Wuan James have 25 career starts each. Right guard Zach Fulton has 18 and center Alex Bullard 12. That bodes well.

"It's real good," Jackson said. "You've got a lot of guys that are real good players, guys that have been playing for a long time and know what they're doing. You can see it happening — everybody playing faster, everybody playing stronger, everybody on the same page now."

The offensive line took a lot of heat when the 2011 Vols averaged just 90.1 rushing yards per game, finishing dead among the 12 SEC teams in that category. This year's line has the same players but a new mindset.

"It's a lot more physicality," Jackson said. "That's all we're working on — having a violent, dominant running game."

To hear more about how the spring went along the offensive front, click play below to listen to Bullard:

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