KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — With the expected return of sophomore linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., many have wondered how Tennessee will line up defensively against South Carolina on Saturday.
Junior reserve Colton Jumper has played nearly every snap at middle linebacker since Kirkland went down with a high-ankle sprain in Tennessee’s win over Virginia Tech in the Battle at Bristol on Sept. 10. The former walk-on ranks second on the Volunteers with 42 stops, including double-digit tackles against Georgia and Texas A&M.
Tennessee likely will experiment playing the two linebackers together against the Gamecocks, but who will man the middle for the Vols?
Due to his athleticism, Kirkland would seem better suited to slide outside and play a similar role as Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Jumper said he’s “most comfortable” playing the MIKE, but believes he can fill any role necessary.
For what it’s worth, Kirkland was listed as the team’s starting middle linebacker on the depth chart Monday. In 2015, he replaced Jumper in the Florida game and blossomed into an All-SEC standout.
Last week, linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said it really doesn’t matter where the two players ultimately line up in Tennessee’s 4-2-5 package.
“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.”