KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. heads the list of four injured Vols who will be at less than 100 percent when practice opens Saturday.
Coach Butch Jones announced that Kirkland, along with projected starting right tackle Chance Hall, defensive tackle Shy Tuttle and backup linebacker Daniel Bituli are all at less than 100 percent.
Kirkland is the most significant of the four injuries, though Jones said he expects the junior to be “full-go” by the second week of fall drills when Tennessee puts on the pads.
Vols’ defensive coordinator Bob Shoop stressed the importance of Kirkland’s health last week, saying “a healthy Darrin Kirkland is critical.” The middle linebacker serves as the quarterback of the defense.
Kirkland started 10 games as a freshman and was off to a strong start last season with nine tackles against Appalachian State and seven more against Virginia Tech before suffering a high ankle sprain.
Tennessee missed Kirkland’s presence the five games he was out, and through he returned for the South Carolina game, he was not 100 percent.
Kirkland suffered a hamstring injury in spring drills and missed the Orange and White Game, though his current injury has been described as “lower body.”
The Vols’ great offensive line depth cushions what could be a longer term situation with Hall, who Jones said is getting a second opinion on his knee.
Hall suffered a knee injury in the preseason last season and underwent arthroscopic surgery. He didn’t start until the fourth game of the season against Florida, one of six starts
Fifth-year senior Brett Kendrick was the starting right tackle before Hall returned from injury last season, and Kendrick soldiered through an injury of his own to finish the season as a starter.
The 6-foot-6, 318-pound Kendrick, from the Christian Academy of Knoxville, underwent ankle surgery in January and will be 100-percent.
Jones feels so good about his offensive line that he said, “I don’t look at it as a starting five, I see a starting 10.”
Even with Hall sidelined, Tennessee has six linemen who have combined to start 99 games.
Tuttle’s rehabilitation has been well-documented, as the 6-foot-2, 308-pounder battles to return from the knee injury he suffered against South Carolina last season.
Bituli is a 6-3, 235-sophomore from Nashville who has contributed primarily on special teams and in goal-line packages.
One of the more athletic players on the defense, Bituli is also dealing with a lower body injury and is expected to be 100 percent by the second week of fall drills.
Tennessee opens the season at 8 p.m. on Sept. 4 in Atlanta against Georgia Tech.