Kirkland settling into 'complex situation' as Tennessee's middle linebacker

Kirkland settling into 'complex situation' as Tennessee's middle linebacker

September 23rd, 2015 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

UT's Darrin Kirkland Jr. approaches Western Carolina's Detrez Newsome Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- It would be easy for Jalen Reeves-Maybin to speak up, to make his younger teammate aware of the mistake he's making.

That wouldn't help Darrin Kirkland Jr. develop into his role, though.

As a junior, Reeves-Maybin is the elder of the two Tennessee linebackers, and though he's in his third year and second as a starter in John Jancek's defensive scheme, he doesn't want to encroach on the freshman Kirkland's role in making all the pre-snap calls and getting the Volunteers lined up correctly on defense.

"He wants me to learn on my own, and I feel like that's the best way for me to grow, that I make the mistakes on my own and correct them later on," Kirkland said after Tuesday's practice.

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Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland (34) celebrates after a play in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Bowling Green Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, in Nashville.

Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland (34) celebrates after a...

Photo by AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

"He really does a great job with letting me run the defense to the best of my ability, but he also helps me a lot."

The 6-foot-1, 224-pound Kirkland made his first career start last Saturday against Western Carolina, and he'll anchor the middle of Tennessee's defense again this Saturday when the Vols visit Florida.

After splitting time with Colton Jumper in the first two games of the season, Kirkland found out a little more than 24 hours after the loss to Oklahoma that he'd be inserted into the starting lineup. He made four tackles and, despite what Jancek called "a couple of bumps in the road," did well with getting the defense aligned properly.

"He did a really good job lining everybody up," the Vols' defensive coordinator said. "There was a couple things here and there, but for the most part, he did a nice job lining us up.

"That's huge. Getting aligned and putting your eyes where they belong is half the battle. If you can't get aligned properly, you're going to be susceptible to big plays, and you don't want that on defense certainly."

The two most noticeable mistakes for the Indianapolis resident against the Catamounts were two open-field tackles he didn't make when he overran the running back catching a swing pass out in the flat. Even on those plays, Kirkland showed his speed and athletic ability, which are the reasons Tennessee's coaching staff wanted to get him on the field before the start of conference play.

He flashed that in the opener, too, when he chased down Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson after he'd been flushed outside the pocket, came up with the sack and knocked the ball loose on a play that nearly was a defensive touchdown.

"He just has a great athletic skill set," Reeves-Maybin said. "He's a really smart person, a really smart player. He's always studying, he's always trying to get better and he's going to be a great player to come."

Kirkland called starting as a true freshman — he's the first linebacker at Tennessee to do that since A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt in 2011 — a "great honor," but he didn't adjust his routine last week once he was named the starter.

"I feel like I played decent," Kirkland said. "A couple things (with) some missed assignments here and there, but I'm really excited I got the opportunity. I made some plays, but I left some plays out there as well. It's all a learning experience."

Courtesy of Reeves-Maybin, Kirkland has had a plenty of those in practice this season.

"I leave all his responsibilities up to him," Reeves-Maybin said. "In practice, sometimes I'll catch him doing something I know is wrong, but I just let it happen, because at the end of the day there's only one voice of the defense.

"You can't have two guys out there talking, so I leave all his responsibilities up to him. He can handle it."

Tennessee's new middle linebacker is learning on the fly as the Vols enter SEC play. There are going to be times when he misses a key tackle or makes a mental error in a key situation. The Vols clearly are high on Kirkland's natural ability, though, and have confidence he will succeed in an important position at the heart of the defense.

"He's done a really good job," Jancek said. "It's tough for a freshman to come in. You think about it: He didn't have spring practice, so he had the summer, had camp. It's different when you get in the games. The anxiety level, the pressure, the crowd noise — all those things add to now a very complex situation for a freshman middle linebacker.

"I think Darrin's handled it admirably, and he's going to continue to get better, so that's certainly positive."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.


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