Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. works on lateral drills during NCAA college football practice Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, in Knoxville, Tenn. (Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

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KNOXVILLE — Darrin Kirkland is a little more than eight months removed from playing the final game of his high school football career.

Monday night's practice was a throwback performance for the Tennessee linebacker, though.

The promising freshman drew high praise from defensive coordinator John Jancek for his play earlier this week, which was a clear statement of intent from Kirkland, who's pushing hard to be Tennessee's starting middle linebacker when the Volunteers open the season against Bowling Green in Nashville in two weeks.

"I kind of told my dad it felt like I was in high school again, just playing my game, (being) instinctual and getting to make plays within the defense and not being so robotic," Kirkland said after Thursday's practice.

"It felt really good to play my game."

As the season nears, Kirkland, a former four-star recruit from Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis, remains in the thick of a competition with redshirt junior Kenny Bynum and walk-on Colton Jumper, a former Baylor School standout, to replace A.J. Johnson at middle linebacker.

The Vols continue to mix all three of those players into some first-team work, and each have had their moments during the three weeks of preseason practice.

Kirkland's moment came Monday night, when Jancek said the 6-foot-1, 224-pounder "did some things you just can't coach" and "really jumped out" with his play.

"(He did) just some instinctive things where he just kind of slipped a block, and he's not robotic," Jancek said after that practice. "He understands concepts, and he kind of makes plays maybe not exactly how it's drawn up. It never unfolds exactly how you think as a coach, and so you want those players that are in there that can maybe slip a block a certain way, like a (Jalen) Reeves-Maybin. He's just got a feel of the leverage on the ball.

"Can I take the run-through? Can I not? Do I have to play a little bit more over the top? Those were the things that I saw tonight. He's got the athleticism and the quickness as an interior blitzer that will give offensive linemen some problems."

Kirkland very well may have the most natural talent of the trio competing at linebacker, but it's daunting to think of putting all the responsibilities the middle linebacker has on the shoulders of a freshman, particularly when many of Tennessee's opponents this season run up-tempo offenses.

Sitting out spring practice after tearing a pectoral muscle during a winter workout allowed Kirkland, who has a medically-certified photographic memory, to improve mentally. He's also clearly comfortable with providing the vocal leadership required at his position.

"For me, it kind of comes natural," he said. "I had to do that in high school, be a vocal leader amongst a bunch of young guys. Now it's kind of the role reversal. I've got to earn that respect of the older guys like Curt (Maggitt), the experienced guys like (Derek) Barnett, and really just work together with them.

"You've got to take charge, and that's my job as a (middle linebacker)," he added. "I definitely do take control when I'm out there. Definitely I have to set the front. That's my job. That's not Jalen's job, it's not anybody else's job. I've definitely got to be the alpha male of the defense."

Tennessee coach Butch Jones likes the "great competitive structure" going on between the three linebackers, so there's no rush to settle on a starter, but it's clear the Vols are high on Kirkland's abilities.

"He has the skill set, obviously, that we're looking for at linebacker," Jones said. "The football intelligence, he can retain information immediately. You only have to tell him one time. He's a run-and-hit individual. He's another one, just like Kyle Phillips, that continues to get better and better with every practice rep that they gain. He will play this year.

"It is a challenge (playing a freshman at middle linebacker), but again, he's very intelligent. He's very humble, very quiet off the field, listens to what everyone says and takes it all in. But on the football field, he's extremely confident, he's very, very vocal and he communicates very well."

Kirkland isn't conceding anything in his competition with Bynum and Jumper, though he knows what it would mean to start for the Vols against Bowling Green.

"It'd mean the world to me," he said. "I'm a very competitive person. To be a first-stringer as a freshman would be a really big deal to me, but right now I've just got to control what I can."

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