KNOXVILLE — Linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. is one of Tennessee’s top candidates for a breakout season and could become the next household name in the SEC.
Listening to the sophomore from Indianapolis talk after Monday’s practice provided a few observations as to why that’s true.
Kirkland, a speedy 6-foot-1, 230-pounder, started 10 games at middle linebacker last season as a true freshman and improved each time out.
It’s understandable why Kirkland would carry a different mindset into the start of fall camp this season as opposed to a year ago, when he was a newcomer to the program.
“It feels very different because I know my expectations for myself and the expectations the coaches have for me,” Kirkland said following Monday’s practice at Haslam Field. “I feel a lot more comfortable. Throughout the meetings during the summer, we’ve built a real good relationship (with new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop).”
Coach Butch Jones said the Vols have a competitive situation looking for their third, fourth and fifth linebacker.
But it all starts with Kirkland anchored in the middle. He was second in the SEC in tackles by a freshman last season (66), and he recorded 31 tackles in the final five games.
Kirkland acknowledged Shoop has brought a more extensive pressure package to the so-called “Orange Swarm,” but he wouldn’t elaborate beyond saying “we really just set guys up to make plays.”
The Vols don full gear and begin full-contact drills on Saturday.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and SEC Country, and he lives in Knoxville.