KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Darrin Kirkland Jr. is finally ready to step up and be the leader Tennessee’s defense so desperately needs.
“It’s my time, so I have to embrace that role to be the leader, be the Alpha Male that we’ve always talked about,” the Vols junior middle linebacker said after Thursday’s practice. “I’m kind of the last of the mohicans, so I find myself being the main guy and the leader of the defense.
“I’ve embraced that role and I know I have to bring it another level every day.”
Tennessee needed that out of Kirkland last season, with coordinator Bob Shoop identifying him and departed all-time sacks leader Derek Barnett as the defenses “enforcers.”
Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cam Sutton had the captain titles, but it was Kirkland and Barnett that brought the intensity in fall drills, particularly with Reeves-Maybin never really 100 percent.
Kirkland, however, failed to pan out as the All-SEC type of player some had expected.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder from Indianapolis suffered a high ankle sprain in the Vols’ 45-24 win over Virginia Tech the second game of the season and was lost for several weeks.
When Kirkland returned — on Oct. 29 at South Carolina — he was a shadow of his former self, unable to play with the physicalness and authority coaches had seen in him at the start of the season.
It wasn’t until last month that Kirkland said he finally felt 100 percent again.
“There was a lot of rehab and a lot of recovery,” Kirkland said. “(Strength Coach) Coach Rock Gullickson and our training staff did a great job with adjusting my workouts to make sure I was healthy enough to be out here for spring ball with my teammates.”
Kirkland looks around and sees several of the proven stars gone — Barnett, Corey Vereen, Reeves-Maybin and Sutton having moved on toward professional football futures.
“I’m being more vocal, pushing my teammates as much as I push myself,” Kirkland said. “It’s knowing that they look at me to push the energy in practice, and knowing I’ve got to elevate my game so they elevate theirs.”
Shoop has said Tennessee will experiment with a 4-3 look this spring in an effort to shore up the run defense, and Kirkland likes it.
“It gives us different variations to show offenses so they can’t get a bead on what we’re doing,” Kirkland said. “I like it, because it definitely gives us more variations to what we can do with coverage and blitzing.”