KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The construction of the Tennessee defense continues with nine fall camp practices finished.
Injuries have helped create depth at the middle linebacker position. Freshman Will Ignont has impressed with Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Daniel Bituli limited by injuries at the beginning of camp, according to defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.
“I like our depth at linebacker,” Shoop said Thursday. “Bituli has not been 100 percent, but that’s provided Ignont an opportunity. Kirkland these last few days has really stepped up to where we would expect him to be. [Colton] Jumper has had a great camp and really done well.
“Ignont is an alpha male. He’s got some of that ‘it’ factor to him and [is] highly football intelligent. He’s very confident out there. He has made freshman mistakes, but it’s not too big for him.”
An injury limited Kirkland in the first week of camp, but his recent solid practices are a good sign for the Tennessee defense.
Kirkland finished the 2016 season with 45 tackles, 5 for a loss, and a sack in eight games.
The weak-side linebacker position might be more of an open competition than the middle. Shoop said the four players competing there have all played well in camp.
“Probably based on experience it’s Cortez McDowell,” Shoop said. “Elliot Berry has had a really good camp so far. It’s good to have Quart’e Sapp back and Austin Smith.
“When you talk about all the guys that we missed last year, people forget about some of the non-starters that weren’t able to play. Both of those guys missed last year. So, getting those guys back in the swing of things has been very, very positive. I’d say those four guys have performed really, really well.”
McDowell, a senior, recorded 54 tackles, 4 for loss, last season.
Shoop said he sees the safety position as a group with no starters or backups. Everyone in the two-deep can and will play.
Todd Kelly Jr. and Nigel Warrior will likely be the starters in the season opener against Georgia Tech on Sept. 4.
Junior Micah Abernathy’s play in camp might be pushing Warrior, though.
“The four veterans have all had their moments in camp and been very good,” Shoop said. “Probably the most consistent performer has been Micah. We didn’t have Micah Abernathy or Evan Berry in the spring, so to have those guys back has been great.”