KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Although Tennessee expects star linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. to return to action at South Carolina, the Volunteers are still preparing freshman middle linebacker Daniel Bituli to see significant snaps against the Gamecocks.
The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Nashville native has recorded just four tackles on the season, but Bituli has impressed coaches with development, earning the opportunity to see more playing time.
“Our saying is you get what you deserve, and he deserves to be on the field,” linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said.
“We’re looking to play him more at the MIKE, probably 20-25 snaps against South Carolina.”
Bituli worked his way into multiple special teams roles, also seeing a few snaps in Tennessee’s sub-packages at the goal line. Now the freshman is primed for more. The Volunteers are exploring all options at linebacker after allowing 972 rushing yards the last three weeks.
Thigpen called Bituli “the future” at middle linebacker for the Volunteers, comparing him to an All-SEC ‘backer from rival Florida.
“He’s big and strong. If you watch him, he looks like the kid Jarrad Davis at Florida,” Thigpen explained.
“Same body type. Long arms, and is very, very strong for a young guy. He runs well. I look at him as the future at the MIKE position for us. He takes a lot of pride in what he does. He embraces whatever role he’s given.”
With Kirkland sidelined the last six weeks with an ankle injury, junior Colton Jumper has anchored the middle of Tennessee’s defense. He ranks second on the team in tackles with 42, and Thigpen estimates Jumper has played more than 400 snaps this season.
“He’s really played all year for us,” Thigpen said.
“He’s done a tremendous job.”
Thigpen also suggested that once Kirkland is ready to start, Tennessee will experiment playing both Kirkland and Jumper together — utilizing two vocal middle linebackers on the field at the same time in its 4-2-5 nickel package.
“They’re two really smart players. … Both of those guys have proven they can operate on a high level of intellect on the football field,” Thigpen said.
“Both of them can play in space and both have a lot of really good fundamentals. The fact that both of of them have a chance to be healthy in the future gives us a chance in the upcoming games.”