The Must List: Tennessee Linebackers

With the start of fall camp right around the corner, it’s time to look at some picks to prosper at each position.

Over the next few days leading up to the beginning of practice, we’ll examine each position and spotlight a player who the Vols desperately need to perform well as well as one who could elevate the team if he lives up to expectations.

Think of these as the old Chicago White Sox WGN announcers’ “picks to click.”

A year ago, Tennessee had perhaps the weakest linebacking corps in the SEC East. With Jalen Reeves-Maybin missing the season and Darrin Kirkland Jr. either injured or playing at less than 70 percent for much of the season, the Vols struggled to put SEC-caliber athletes on the field at the second level of their defense.

Not many people believe that unit has improved much this season, with JRM’s departure to the NFL. But it’s up to defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen to change that in 2017. If they don’t find some quality players in a full stable of ‘backers (especially considering UT only plays two on the field at once most of the time) one or both of them may be looking for a new job next year.

MUST

DARRIN KIRKLAND JR., Junior

An overlooked turning point of last year for the Vols came late in the Battle at Bristol win over Virginia Tech when Darrin Kirkland Jr. was lost for a portion of the season with a nasty high ankle sprain.

Kirkland — nor Tennessee’s defense — were ever the same after that. Kirkland missed five games and couldn’t regain full strength. But, in actuality, he was struggling early in the season with his run fits and calling the defense prior to his injury. As smart as the Indianapolis native is, Shoop’s defense didn’t come naturally. He wound up with just 45 tackles and five tackles for a loss in what essentially was a wasted season.

In 2017, the Vols need for Kirkland to return to his freshman form where, at times, he was the best linebacker on the field, even with JRM beside him. Yes, he was that good. At 6’1″, 238 pounds and blessed with sideline-to-sideline speed, Kirkland is one of the league’s sleepers this year. He never was truly fit a season ago, and now the Vols believe they’re getting a guy back who could wind up being one of the best second-level defenders on the field. That’s what Shoop is banking on. The junior seems tailor-made to play the aggressive defense, and a year into the system, he should be a transformed product.

As Gridiron Now’s Jason Hall wrote recently, Kirkland admittedly struggled with health last season and this spring, but he’s geared-up now.

“I really just want to develop myself every day and to really grow to be a leader and become an All-SEC player – that is my goal,” Kirkland said during spring practice. “My dream is to be one of the best linebackers in this conference, so I have to prepare for it every day.”

With Shoop charged to put all the speedy Vols in position to make plays, it’s essential that UT has a run-stopping second-level defender. That tackle-gobbler must be Kirkland, and he must be a starter who is consistent. Yes, Colton Jumper and Cortez McDowell can provide plenty of assistance, and sophomore Daniel Bituli has the potential to help a lot, too, but Kirkland is a proven commodity, even if he’d love to have his 2016 season back.

He’s big, fast, aggressive and has a photographic memory that should allow him to know the defense and help others get it quickly. But he has to get everybody lined up and keep his own fits, or the Vols will get gashed too often. That’s what happened in ’16, and that has to be a thing of the past.

He said in that Hall article that he feels like a veteran now, “the Last of the Mohicans,” he called it. The Vols need him to be a warrior and a defensive leader in the middle. If not, it’s going to be another long season for UT’s defense.

MIGHT

QUART’E SAPP, Redshirt Sophomore

Everybody has his favorite players, and, for me, Quart’e Sapp has fallen into that category ever since UT held a spot in a crowded recruiting class to sign him in the 2015 haul. They knew what kind of player he could be, and the blazing-fast, edge-rushing defender was a special-teams monster as a true freshman.

He looked like the next in line of the JRM/Cortez McDowell lineage of linebackers who cut their teeth chasing down kick and punt returners early on before those dues paid off on defense.

Then, just when he was readying himself for a more extended role on defense last year, a knee injury cost him the remaining 11 games of the year. That’s the second season in a row that his year was cut short with knee injuries. That begs the question: Is he still the speed demon he was when he came into Knoxville?

Let’s all hope so.

Though McDowell is the odds-on favorite to win the weak-side linebacker spot, the Vols need quality depth at all positions on the second level, and Sapp is good enough to push McDowell to start and at least be a situational linebacker who can get after the quarterback in pass-rushing situations. He could be an X-factor if he hasn’t lost that foot speed, and the Vols need that badly. It’s a cornerstone of Shoop’s defenses to have guys who can put pressure on the quarterback, and with Sapp and JRM out last year, the Vols didn’t have anybody who could from the second level.

On the exterior, Tennessee will have more options this year. The Vols love freshmen Solon Page III and Shanon Reid, though it’s unclear whether either of them will help in anything other than special teams this year. Jumper is a versatile defender who can play either spot, too. Then there’s Austin Smith who looks more like a strong-side ‘backer/speedy defensive end hybrid. But Sapp was brought in to be that gazelle who is all over the place all the time, much the way JRM was before the injuries and how guys like Kevin Burnett and Rico McCoy played back in the day.

Can he be that kind of player, or am I just having visions of those Chavis safety-turned-linebackers dancing in my head in a blitz-happy defense? I guess we’ll see. We all have thoughts about what Shoop’s aggressive defenses can look like when he’s coaching at his best and his cupboard is full. My vision of that defense includes Sapp surging from all over the field and getting after quarterbacks.

  • For a look at UT’s quarterbacks “must” list, click here.
  • For a look at UT’s running backs “must” list, click here.
  • For a look at UT’s wide receivers/tight ends “must” list, click here.
  • For a look at UT’s offensive line “must” list, click here.
  • For a look at UT’s defensive ends “must” list, click here.
  • For a look at UT’s defensive tackles “must” list, click here.

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