KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — With sophomore star Darrin Kirkland sidelined with a high-ankle sprain, junior Colton Jumper will get the nod at middle linebacker against Ohio this Saturday.
Call it an audition.
Since Kirkland could be out multiple weeks with the injury, No. 15 Tennessee must search for a solid replacement at the center of its defense — especially with four Top 25 matchups looming on the schedule after Saturday.
Jumper, a junior who started the opening three games in 2015, will get the first crack after filling in for Kirkland late in the win over Virginia Tech.
“No individual is bigger than the team. If it was, you wouldn’t have much of a team,” said Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop when asked about the ramifications of losing Kirkland.
“Our job is to prepare the players that are ready to go this week, and right now, because of injury, Colton’s our No. 1 linebacker.”
Last season, Jumper struggled in space in the losses to Oklahoma and Florida, as Kirkland — then a freshman — ultimately took over the position and produced an All-SEC season. His loss is significant, but Shoop believes Jumper has made a real leap this offseason.
“He prepares as hard as anybody,” Shoop said.
“He’s done that through the course of the spring. He’s done that through the course of the summer. This wasn’t handed to him — by any means. He’s earned this opportunity. He’s going to play very well.”
Some wondered if Tennessee’s other star linebacker — Jalen Reeves-Maybin — could simply slide over into the MIKE spot, especially since Shoop utilities so much nickel defense. Head coach Butch Jones mentioned the possibility, but Shoop said the Vols will roll with Jumper at the MIKE — for now.
“The two linebackers in the 4-2-5 scheme are somewhat interchangeable,” Shoop said.
“And just because it’s the Ohio week doesn’t mean we won’t reassess it every single week. For Ohio, we’re prepared for Colton to play the MIKE and Jalen to play the WILL and we’ll go from there.”