KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — While Tennessee is set at middle linebacker with All-SEC sophomore Darrin Kirkland, junior Colton Jumper is pushing for playing time.
The former Baylor School star has had a productive preseason and will serve as Kirkland’s primary backup, according to Volunteers defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.
“Colton Jumper has had a good camp,” Shoop said Friday.
“He’s been our most consistent performer. I also like Gavin Bryant, but Jumper’s ahead of Bryant right now.”
Jumper started Tennessee’s first three games in 2015, racking up just 8 total tackles.
The 6-foot-2, 224-pound middle linebacker struggled in space and was quickly leapfrogged on the depth chart by Kirkland. Jumper didn’t record a tackle for 8 straight games, but Shoop believes the junior has made steady progress this offseason.
“The games he played the most in were Bowling Green and Oklahoma, and those games are the kind of games where the middle linebacker can get exposed and be spread out all over the place by really good athletes,” Shoop explained.
“He’s smart. He gets the unit lined up. He’s got great leadership qualities. He’s got great communication qualities. He diagnoses the run and pass game well. He’s played fast and been really, very, very consistent. I’m excited.”
Behind Kirkland and Jumper, Shoop said freshman Daniel Bituli and Bryant, a redshirt sophomore, fill out the depth chart. Shoop raved about Bryant’s special teams contributions, while noting that Bituli has “tremendous potential” but still “has a long way to go as far as learning the packages.”
Tennessee mainly will rely on Kirkland and senior standout Jalen Reeves-Maybin, but Shoop is encouraged with Jumper’s preseason development.
“We’re foolish if we think DK and Jalen are going to play every single snap of the year,” Shoop said.
“So (Jumper) is ready. He’s ready to take the next step. Keep in mind, last year was the first time he’d seen any action, as well.”
Jesse Simonton covers Tennessee football and recruiting for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and SECCountry.com