KNOXVILLE — When Jeremy Pruitt met with linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. this summer after Kirkland's announcement that he intended to leave Tennessee's football program as a graduate transfer, there was no begging or pleading involved.
Sure, Pruitt wanted Kirkland, an All-Southeastern Conference freshman team selection in 2015, to remain at Tennessee. Pruitt's approach to the situation, though, convinced Kirkland the Volunteers' new head coach had the redshirt junior's best interest at mind — regardless of where Kirkland would play football in 2018.
"It wasn't a sales pitch," Kirkland said Thursday. "He was just very supportive of whatever decision I wanted, because he always wants the best for me. He wants the best for any player on this team. So I was happy with that, that he just supported my decision."
Speaking to media for the first time since the summer flip-flop that led him remaining with the Vols, Kirkland said he feels "110 percent" after rehabilitating from the second devastating knee injury of his college career.
"It was difficult for me personally not to be on the field," the 6-foot-1, 234-pound Kirkland said of the 2017 season he missed entirely as the Vols struggled to a 4-8 record. "But I'm excited to move forward, happy to be back on the field this season."
The same academic prowess that allowed Kirkland to graduate with his sports management degree in three years is allowing him to flourish early in a new defensive scheme — the Vols have switched from a 4-3 front to a 3-4 — after being a limited participant in spring practices.
"He's a smart guy. He has a really good understanding of the defense," Pruitt said Thursday. "That says a lot about him, because he didn't hardly take any reps in the spring. He picks things up fast."
Kirkland plans to take graduate courses in communications this semester as he returns to an inside linebackers group that includes veterans Daniel Bituli and Quart'e Sapp, who emerged as playmakers in Kirkland's absence a year ago.
With a degree in hand in May, Kirkland had "some options," he acknowledged Thursday. Ultimately, he chose the familiar one and returned to compete with and play alongside Bituli and Sapp for a unit that will likely be the deepest on Tennessee's 2018 defense.
"Every day that he's out there," Pruitt said, "I see him improving and gaining confidence with his step and what he can get done."
Kirkland has 111 tackles, including 39 for loss, in his collegiate career. There may not have been a sales pitch from Pruitt, but he is surely happy to have a player he described as instinctive, tough and quick back in orange.
"The past is the past," Kirkland said. "I'm really comfortable with this university. I love this university. The best fans in the universe. I've graduated from here and I've fulfilled that obligation to get my degree. So that decision process was a family one. I'm looking forward to moving forward with Coach Pruitt, this defense, this team. I'm excited to be here."