KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s linebacker situation gained some clarity on Tuesday with Tommy Thigpen explaining the different roles and futures of a few of the Vols’ players.
Junior Darrin Kirkland Jr. will start at middle linebacker for Tennessee next season, and Cortez McDowell has impressed at weak side linebacker in spring drills, that much is known.
But beyond that, there’s been some question as to who the third linebacker might be if or when the Vols go to the 4-3 look defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has mentioned.
Injured redshirt sophomore Quart’e Sapp could ultimately be that player, and Thigpen said he’s counting on the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder from Alpharetta, Ga., being up to speed by the start of next season.
Sapp suffered a knee injury in the third game of last season against Ohio and has yet to return to the practice field.
Sapp was a backup linebacker at the time of his injury, and it was somewhat overshadowed that day as preseason All-SEC picks Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cam Sutton also suffered serious injuries in the non-conference game against the Bobcats.
Kirkland Jr. was already sidelined by a high ankle sprain at the time of Reeves-Maybin’s injury, and then later in the season McDowell was lost for multiple games due to injury, and Sapp’s injury became more glaring as Tennessee dipped into its third string.
Sapp could have a pivotal role if he gain regain his health and blossom into the sort of player Butch Jones expected when he recruited the 4-star prospect out of Milton High School, gaining his commitment over such schools as Clemson, Florida State and Michigan State.
Thigpen is confident Sapp will do the necessary work.
“He’s a real disciplined kid with his time, and he’ll spend a ton of time rehabbing himself and getting himself ready,” Thigpen said.
Other candidates for the strong-side spot that Thigpen mentioned include Austin Smith and Colton Jumper.
Incoming freshman Solon Page lll will also play at the strong side position, where Thigpen said he’s looking for the type of size and length needed to match up with a tight end.
“Solon is another long, sleek body that’s a 4.5 (-second 40-yard dash) kid,” Thigpen said, “and he’s 6-3, 225 pounds.”
Mike Griffith and WNML’s Josh Ward discuss Thigpen’s interview in today’s podcast.