KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — True freshmen are not supposed to start games at middle linebacker, but that’s only one clue that Tennessee has a very special player in Darrin Kirkland Jr.
The middle linebacker, or “mike” in college football terminology, is the defense’s equivalent to having a quarterback on the football field.
It didn’t take long for first-year Vols defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to establish trust and a bond with Kirkland, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound rising sophomore from Indianapolis.
“His football I.Q. is really high, and he’s taken command of the huddle,” Shoop said. “He’s a real leader out there, and his pursuit to the football is as good as anybody I’ve seen at that position in a while.
“It’s pretty impressive to watch.”
College fans could easily be watching the 19-year-old Kirkland in a winged helmet and maize and blue uniform if not for some help from Michigan State.
It was the Spartans’ 29-6 crushing win against Michigan in 2013 that sealed the fate of then-UM coach Brady Hoke and led Kirkland to decommit from the Ann Arbor school.
“I was talking to Brady almost every day because I was worried about the situation,” said Kirkland, who officially reopened his recruitment Nov. 6 — four days after Michigan’s loss at Michigan State.
“Him and coach (Greg) Mattison, their defensive line coach, both were very understanding and respectful to me and my family and my process, which really helped me a lot.”
Kirkland committed to Butch Jones and Tennessee on Dec. 15 — the day before Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh.
Upon arriving at Tennessee on Jan. 7, Kirkland took it upon himself to learn the defense, intent on winning a starting job.
“I take a lot of time studying the game separately, away from everyone else,” Kirkland revealed. “I feel that plays a role in my mental capacity.”
Senior captain Jalen Reeves-Maybin said Kirkland is one of a kind, but the closest comparison would be Seattle Seahawks All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner.
“He doesn’t remind me of anyone I’ve played, necessarily,” Reeves-Maybin said. “I’d compare him to Bobby Wagner of the Seahawks. Just his playing style, body movements and the speed he plays with.”
Shoop believes Kirkland will one day play in the NFL, too.
“Kirkland has established himself as a top-flight linebacker,” Shoop said. “We just have to keep him sharp over these next couple weeks.”
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s SEC Country and lives in Knoxville.