It’s finally football time in Tennessee, and we’ll be squeezing every morsel of news out of every word that escapes new coach Jeremy Pruitt’s mouth over the next month leading up to the season opener in Charlotte against West Virginia.
But we are here to fully arm you with every bit of information we can leading up to the season’ start. In order to do that, we’ve got to get you up-to-date on all the new personnel you’ll be seeing on the football field in 2018.
More than 30 new players will suit up for the Big Orange who didn’t this spring. Many of those weren’t even in orange and white for the worst season in school history a year ago. That’s not a bad thing, either.
Pruitt came in and immediately determined the team that went 4-8 last year wasn’t equipped to win this year, either. So, he called on reinforcements. Over the next few days, we’ll brief you on the newbies at each position.
Let’s take a look at the linebacking corps.
We’re all on JJ Peterson watch, but the high 4-star linebacker and potential jewel of the 2018 haul under Jeremy Pruitt can’t be profiled until he gets on campus. When that will be, who knows? The Vols start classes soon, and Peterson’s high school coach Rush Propst said we’ll know something one way or another by next Friday.
That late, it’s hard to envision Peterson helping UT the first half of this season, but that doesn’t change the Vols needing him to get into school so he can help down the road. At this point, we don’t know what to expect.
Losing the centerpiece of Pruitt’s half-class would be bad. Oh well, you play the guys who’re here, right? Let’s take a look at them.
DARRIN KIRKLAND, 6’1″, 234-pound RS Junior
Perhaps it was an omen and a harbinger for the Vols during preseason drills when Kirkland went down with a season-ending injury. After all, he was supposed to be the defensive leader once Jalen Reeves-Maybin left for the NFL, and instead, the Vols were forced to play the entire season without their leader.
For a while, we all thought we’d watched our last down for Kirkland in orange and white, too. After graduating early, he nearly transferred from UT for his final two seasons of eligibility, but Kirkland was lured back onto the roster by Jeremy Pruitt. Now, he’s expected to anchor UT’s strongest unit alongside Daniel Bituli.
Kirkland is a familiar old face, but he’s “new” to this lineup because A) he missed last year, B) he nearly wasn’t in Knoxville and C) he didn’t play this spring. Kirkland has a chance to be one of the Vols’ best players if he’s healthy and if he grasps Pruitt’s defensive concepts. The Vols need him to quickly, and as smart as he is, it shouldn’t be a problem. A healthy Kirkland is excellent for UT’s defense.
DARRELL TAYLOR, 6’4″, 247-pound RS Junior
Another player who isn’t new to the roster is Taylor, who played defensive end for the Vols a season ago before shifting to the pass-rushing Jack outside linebacker this past spring. Taylor looked good at times in the spring despite the rust of learning a new position. The Vols need for him not only to be serviceable on the second level but to be a force.
Last year, he broke out with a 12-tackle performance and the game-winning stop in the season-opening escape against Georgia Tech. He finished the year with 27 tackles and a suspension. That’s not the kind of player the Vols need for Taylor to be in his final two years of eligibility.
They need a difference-maker who can get after opposing quarterbacks and take some of the pressure off the young secondary. Taylor must do that. He needs a new lease on life in his new position. He has the highest upside of any linebacker on the roster, but can he realize his massive potential? It could be fun watching Chris Rumph develop him.
JONATHAN KONGBO, 6’5″, 254-pound RS Senior
Speaking of a fresh start, if anybody needs one, it’s Kongbo. He needs to wash the stench of the Butch Jones era off him. The former top JUCO player in the nation committed to Tennessee over the top schools in the country with three years of eligibility remaining. He now has one season left to go and has yet to make any real impact on the defense.
At times over the past two years, Kongbo has looked lost, out of position and has watched runners blow by him. Last year, he had 29 tackles, but his run containment was awful, and he finished with just 2.5 tackles for a loss. The coaches this year decided to move him to linebacker, and he can focus on one major thing this year, his final year:
Getting after the quarterback.
If Kongbo could make an impact, whether starting or in a reserve role, it’ll be a good finish to a disappointing career. He is so big and talented, it’s hard to envision a career where he didn’t do anything. Maybe he just needs coaching; UT hopes so.
JORDAN ALLEN, 6’4″, 242-pound RS Sophomore
Without Peterson on campus, the Vols are left with just one linebacker in the 2018 class and that’s big-time JUCO prospect Allen, who they lured away from junior college in San Francisco. He certainly looks the part, and Allen has three years to play three. But UT needs him to make an impact this year.
An athlete who looks like him and is as fast as him needs to be able to play and provide quality snaps. That’s why Rumph and other coaches have been so hard on him; they’re trying to unlock his massive potential. Allen is an ideal linebacker for a 3-4 system, and though he doesn’t always play with a high motor or is consistent in where he is supposed to be, there are flashes of brilliance.
Once Allen gets acclimated with the defense, he is sure to fit in the rotation. The Vols could be deep and good at linebacker, so Allen will definitely have to earn his spot. But they’ll be better if he does.
DEANDRE JOHNSON, 6’3″, 244-pound Sophomore
One of my breakout candidates this year is Johnson, another player who isn’t new to Tennessee’s roster, but, like Taylor and Kongbo, moved back to linebacker from defensive end.
He never looked big enough to me to play with his hand down, but he’s big and athletic and looks like a player who could develop into a good linebacker. He’s quick even though he’s not fast, he’s a good athlete who could excel in a pass-rushing role. He’d probably get burned in coverage, but the Vols wouldn’t ask him to do that.
Johnson is a player that Miami and others really wanted, and the Vols won that battle. He played some as a true freshman, and UT hopes he continues to develop at his new spot. He could have a really big year. I think he’s got a strong future.