Missing spring practice 'tough' for Vols' freshman Kirkland

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KNOXVILLE -- Darrin Kirkland Jr. was all set and ready to get a jumpstart on his Tennessee football career when he arrived on campus as one of 10 early enrollees in January.

Then a regular set on the bench press turned painful for the promising linebacker.

If you've ever wondered what's it like to tear a pectoral muscle, just ask Kirkland, who was sidelined for the Volunteers' spring practices when he suffered the injury while flinging up 335 pounds on the bench.

"That was a weight I was comfortable with," Kirkland said after Tuesday's practice, "but (the trainers) said the overall power took it right off the bone."


"I kind of compare it to a gunshot or a really hard punch in my chest," he added. "Now that I'm over that pain I'm looking forward to the season and getting my strength back."

For now, it's about the mental aspect of the game for the 6-foot-2, 235-pound four-star recruit from Indianapolis.

With the rest of Tennessee's injured players -- who include defensive starters Derek Barnett, Curt Maggitt, Danny O'Brien and Corey Vereen and another early enrollee in Kyle Phillips -- Kirkland is working out or shadowing his position group during practices and going through walk-throughs on off days.

"It's been tough," Kirkland said, "but it's been a big experience for me, and I've gotten better from it."

The hope for Kirkland and the Vols was that he would come in and provide further competition alongside Kenny Bynum and Dillon Bates at middle linebacker as Tennessee looks to replace A.J. Johnson and his 425 career tackles.

Rising redshirt junior Bynum continues to man the first-team spot with redshirt freshman Gavin Bryant getting some second-team looks as the Vols manage Bates as he completes his recovery from a torn labrum.

Kirkland's injury prohibits him from getting the live work that can speed up a player's development this early in a career, but thanks to his photographic memory, the freshman is getting the most out of all the mental reps he's taking and video he's watching.

"It's invaluable," coach Butch Jones said. "Obviously we would like to have him out here taking the live reps. You still can learn some things in taking mental reps, but you really don't learn until you're in the flow of things and everything's coming at you.

"Darrin has proven he can process information very, very quickly, and he can also retain information very, very quickly. When he did his placement test at the Thornton Center, they actually discovered that he had a photographic memory, and any time you can have that from your (middle) linebacker, it's very encouraging."

Kirkland is hoping to be fully cleared by June, and he'll resume some light upper-body workouts "in the next couple of weeks," he said. Limited to lower-body strength work, Kirkland said he's been "killing" those areas, which has generated results. He's added 12 or 13 pounds since arriving on campus about three months ago.

During his three-year career at Lawrence Central High School, Kirkland piled up 367 tackles and finished his senior season with 121 stops, including 13.5 for loss.

Tennessee was hoping it'd get a better gauge on how the former Michigan commitment could help them, but that's not been the case, though Kirkland feels he's getting the most out of what he can do.

"A lot of (it's) film work, but Coach Jones has set it up for the injured guys, on the off days we don't have practice, we walk through the plays ourselves," he said. "That's really helped my development as far as getting more mental reps and walk-throughs. You can really get a lot (out) of them.

"The speed is a lot different, of course, from what you go through it at practice, but it definitely helps you break it down mentally and walk through those steps that you'll be doing."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com