KNOXVILLE — It may not show at next weekend's spring game, but Tennessee's linebacker depth is improving by the day.
Darrin Kirkland Jr., who missed the 2017 season after injuring a meniscus in preseason practice, returned to Haslam Field on Thursday and participated in drills during a portion of practice open to media.
Also taking a step toward full contact this week is junior linebacker Daniel Bituli, who had surgery in the offseason. When the spring session began last month, Bituli was only a partial participant in practice.
"Daniel is starting to advance," Volunteers coach Jeremy Pruitt said Thursday. "He participated today. He practiced today. I said we've got a lot of guys that are getting close. If we practiced another week, we'd almost have everybody.
Pruitt also noted that "Darrin took the next step."
"He'll probably be back next week," Pruitt said. "That'll be positive to get those guys some reps as we move forward."
Pruitt has not decided if the two will participate in the Orange and White spring game April 21 at Neyland Stadium.
"It's probably too early to tell," he said. "I would have to see where we're at probably by next Tuesday to get an idea. But it'll be close, which is a good thing. Those guys are kind of anxious to get out there."
The two middle linebacker slots in Tennessee's 3-4 defense could be a position of strength in 2018, provided Bituli and Kirkland continue rehabilitating successfully.
With that duo out or limited through the first three weeks of spring practices, Quart'e Sapp turned some heads with an improved physique. Pruitt said the redshirt junior weighs 226 pounds, up about 15 from when the new coaching staff arrived in December.
"That's a testament to him, because not everyone has done that," Pruitt said. "It goes back to the guys that prepare, that study film on their own. Some of it has to do with your diet and your sleep as much as it does with what you eat."
Sapp finished fourth on the team with 75 tackles in 2017 as he returned from his own bout with injury to make a strong impression after Kirkland was lost for the year. A new coaching staff means a new scheme and more to learn for the Vols, but Sapp downplayed the transition last week.
"It's a little different technique obviously, but not much," he said. "You still have to be vocal and you still have to take charge of the defense, so it's not too much different."
Bituli led the team with 90 tackles a year ago after rising to the occasion with 23 tackles in Tennessee's season-opening win over Georgia Tech just days after the team learned Kirkland would be out for the year.
Kirkland had surgery on his injured meniscus soon after it happened last year, but his absence during the first three weeks of spring practice came on the heels of another minor knee operation.
The coaching staff hoped before spring practices began that Kirkland would be healthy enough to participate in practice during the last two weeks. That he was in uniform on the practice field Thursday certainly came as a welcome sight to the Vols.