One of the few question marks remaining for the Tennessee defense heading into the season is at middle linebacker. With a plethora of returns at defensive backs and on the line, the Vols look to surround A.J. Johnson's eventual replacement with the talent to succeed in his first year starting.
Up to this point, redshirt junior Kenny Bynum appears to have the early edge in camp, with sophomore Colton Jumper and true freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr. looking to crack the starting lineup.
Defensive coordinator John Jancek gave his thoughts on the group following Monday's practice.
“Right now, it’s still a three-man competition between Colton Jumper, Darrin Kirkland and Kenny Bynum. But I tell you what, Darrin Kirkland did some things tonight that you just can’t coach,” Jancek said to 247Sports.
“We’ll get in there and watch the film and see where we’re at. But they’ve all been getting reps. They’re getting the looks that they need. We know that we’re going to have to settle in here when we get back on Thursday. Can’t share three guys with reps.
“But we’ll know a little bit more after we watch the film tonight, because we did a lot of football out there, and Darrin really jumped out.”
While Kirkland is the least experienced player competing for the spot, he is said to have a photographic memory, which may help him in grasping the defensive playbook faster than most freshmen. Kirkland enrolled early in January and sustained a torn bicep shortly after his arrival. The injury cost him all of spring football.
Despite the time lost to injury this spring, Jancek likes what he's seen so far. Don't be surprised to see Kirkland hit the field often this spring.
“He’s not robotic,” Jancek said. “He understands concepts, and he kind of makes plays with maybe not exactly how it’s drawn up. It never unfolds exactly how you think as a coach, so you want those players that are in there that could maybe slip a block a certain way, kind of like a (Jalen) Reeves-Maybin.
“And he’s got the athleticism and the quickness as an interior blitzer that will give some offensive linemen some problems.”