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Tennessee defensive tackle Danny O'Brien celebrates after making a tackle in the second half of the Vols' 38-28 win against Florida on Sept. 24, 2016, at Neyland Stadium. (Photo By Hayley Pennesi/Tennessee Athletics)

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KNOXVILLE -- The abrupt dismissal from Tennessee's football program of fifth-year defensive tackle Danny O'Brien on Monday evening came as a surprise to pretty much everybody, including some of his teammates.

Just two days earlier O'Brien was taken off Kyle Field strapped to a backboard after suffering what initially appeared to be a scary neck injury early in the fourth quarter of the double-overtime loss at Texas A&M.

Now his career with the Volunteers is over.

"I saw (the news) on social media," safety Todd Kelly Jr. said on Tuesday. "That's how I found out. I wasn't really sure what went down, and I know his phone's blowing up and stuff like that probably, so I didn't text him or ask what happened. I was kind of perplexed when I heard the news, but we're really going to miss Danny.

"He was a great attribute to our team, but at the same time it's going to allow other people to step up. When you have a void, you have to fix it. Even though he was a piece to our puzzle, I feel like we'll be able to fill that piece again. He's a great guy and I wish him the best in the future."

O'Brien was at times an anonymous player who did the dirty work without much notoriety or overwhelming production in the box score, but for the most part he was liked and respected by his teammates, who surrounded him in support as he was tended to on Saturday in College Station.

After his dismissal for violating unspecified team rules, O'Brien tweeted that he took "full responsibility" for what happened, expressed appreciation for his teammates, coaches and Tennessee fans and called it an honor "to help bring this program back."

The Michigan native signed with Tennessee and Derek Dooley in 2012.

"It was a little sudden, but we definitely wish him the best," quarterback Josh Dobbs said. "I know he sent out a tweet, a message about him and everything, and we definitely wish him the best. Obviously O.B. has been here since I got here. This is his fifth year here and everything.

"I'm sorry to see him go out that way for sure, but we definitely wish him the best. Every interaction I've had with O.B. has always been awesome, positive, pushing this team, pushing different guys, pushing the D-line to continue to work hard and grind and get to where we want to be. That really has helped us grow, for sure."

O'Brien's departure will open up more playing time at defensive tackle for Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle, while tackle/end Jonathan Kongbo also could see a bump in playing time even though he's more of a situational player used in pass-rush situations.

"I really think they are (ready)," Kelly said. "It's a great opportunity for all three of them. I believe that from watching film, Shy and Kahlil played a little bit more than Jonathan did, but they had one of their best games of their career playing against Texas A&M.

"That gives me confidence as well as them, as well as the coaching staff and the rest of my teammates. They know what they're called to do. When they were recruited here, they know what they signed up for. Now that the opportunity is here, they have to do what they can and run with it. I feel like they're capable of doing so."

O'Brien's absence is a loss Tennessee can overcome, but it's just the latest blow to a defense already without cornerback Cameron Sutton and linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr., who's hoping to return against top-ranked Alabama on Saturday.

"It amazes me, and it's something that I never would have guessed or hypothesized at the beginning of the year," Kelly said. "Problems always come your way. Trials and tribulations may happen, but at the same time, you have to find ways to get around it.

"It's almost like an obstacle course. You still get to the finish line even though there's obstacles. You just have to make a plan and task it out and make it happen, and I feel like that's what this team is doing. We're having a lot of people step up and make plays for us.

"There's a lot of role players on our team, guys that fill particular roles on this team and they're trying to execute to the utmost that they can. I feel like if they do that then we're going to be able to stick together."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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