KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Colton Jumper has tuned out the noise.
Tennessee’s junior linebacker is a lightening-rod around Rocky Top, especially on social media.
Chastised for some struggles as a sophomore, the veteran middle linebacker has silenced his critics with a pair of impressive performances in place of injured star Darrin Kirkland.
“We knew what Jumper could do,” weakside linebacker Cortez McDowell said Monday.
“We had a tremendous amount of confidence in him, and he showed this past week — and the week before. We’re going to continue to ride his coattails.”
Two weeks ago, Jumper, a former walk-on, earned his first start in 12 games, recording 7 stops and a tackle for loss in the narrow win over Ohio.
He played even better in Tennessee’s roaring comeback win over Florida on Saturday, notching a career-high 8 tackles (a team-high, too) and a key pass-breakup in the end zone.
Jumper wasn’t motivated by his doubters, per se. Instead, he had higher expectations for himself and feels now he’s fulfilling his potential.
“I took it personal that I needed to step it up in games,” Jumper said.
“There were some plays that I left out there on the field in the pass that I shouldn’t have left out there. But practicing how you play, that eventually is going to pay off.”
Following Jumper’s impressive showing against Florida, coach Butch Jones called it the best game of the much-maligned linebacker’s career. Jones praised Jumper’s knowledge of Tennessee’s defense and ability to seamlessly slide into the “quarterback role” of making the calls.
Jumper stands to make his third-straight start against Georgia this weekend, as Kirkland remains likely sidelined with an ankle injury.
“The more and more repetitions that Colton gains, he’s gaining more and more confidence,” Jones said.
Jumper actually started Tennessee’s first three games in 2015, but the 6-foot-2, 224-pound thumper struggled in space against Oklahoma and Bowling Green. He was replaced in the lineup by Kirkland, hardly seeing the field the rest of the season.
When Kirkland went down with an injury against Virginia Tech, the rebel-rousers were out in full-force, preemptively predicting Jumper would struggle once again.
“I try to block out that noise,” he said.
“I don’t really listen to too much, I kind of stay off social media. … It doesn’t really affect me too much.”
All offseason, new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop touted Jumper’s ability and said the linebacker’s performances were not indicative of his practice efforts. Shoop routinely listed Jumper as a player Tennessee could — and would — count on this fall.
He was a right.
Jumper said Shoop’s supreme confidence in his ability allowed him to turn the page on last year and develop into a real role player for the Volunteers.
“When guys have your back, that’s huge,” he said.
“It give you the next level of confidence that you need. … They still believe in you. It helps a lot.”