KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — With Tennessee’s defense ravaged by injuries, Darrin Kirkland Jr. decided enough was enough.
After missing four games with a high-ankle sprain, Tennessee’s sophomore linebacker willed himself back onto the field against South Carolina on Oct. 29.
“I just wanted to be out there with my brothers,” he said Monday, still sporting a giant white wrap around his right ankle.
“Cam (Sutton) did the same thing. Alvin (Kamara) did the same thing.”
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound middle linebacker returned to help a cratering Tennessee defense that torched by Alabama and Texas A&M, but the athletic linebacker hardly resembled an All-SEC standout the final six weeks of the season for the Vols. Not coincidentally, Tennessee’s defense was a tire-fire the last several games of the year.
Kirkland acknowledged he probably came back too soon, saying, “I still wasn’t extremely healthy. I kind of got banged-up on my way coming back. My ankle wasn’t 100 percent, and I had some shoulder problems that I had throughout the spring. Now I’m getting healthy. I feel better day-by-day. I’m feeling good.”
After recording 16 tackles the first seven quarters of the 2016 campaign, Kirkland averaged just 4.4 stops per game the rest of the season. The sophomore struggled with mobility and lateral quickness, looking nothing like the player expected to anchor the middle of Tennessee’s defense.
But he’s much more comfortable now. His ankle is still tapped, but the extra time for bowl prep has allowed him to rest and recover. He fully expects to be a different player when the Vols take the field against Nebraska in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30.
“I just feel like I’m back to myself,” he said.
“My speed, mentality, just ready to make plays. I felt that difference from the end of the season to bowl prep.”