KNOXVILLE — It's been a busy season for Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen.
On an injury-ravaged roster for the Volunteers, no position was hit harder than Thigpen's group, which lost three of its top players by midway through the third game of the season.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Quart'e Sapp suffered season-ending injuries against Ohio one week after Darrin Kirkland Jr. was lost for at least the next five games, and the Volunteers were forced into starting essentially a fourth-teamer in Elliott Berry against Alabama after Cortez McDowell was hurt against Texas A&M.
Every scholarship linebacker on the roster aside from redshirting freshman Ja'Quain Blakely has been forced into playing meaningful snaps this season.
"It happens, and that's part of the game of football," Thigpen said. "If you play it long enough, somebody's going to get hurt. Unfortunately this year it's been a multitude of injuries, and the next guy's up. D.K. was down at one time, and hopefully this week it'll be a chance for him to get back. Reeves-Maybin is out for the season; then we lost Sapp.
"Injuries happen, and you've just got to get guys ready and in position to make sure when they go out there that they're prepared."
This past week's open date gave the Vols a chance to improve their collective health and focus more on reviewing and fine-tuning their fundamentals, and for the Thigpen the focus was tackling and correcting the mental errors plaguing the team in recent games.
It was an important week for Tennessee's younger players to show the coaches why they deserve an increased role for the season's stretch run, and one of those promising players at linebacker is Daniel Bituli.
The coaching staff is excited about the future of the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder from Nashville who's played primarily on special teams and only in a goal-line package on defense and wants to get him some snaps in the present.
"He's big and strong," Thigpen said. "If you watch him, he looks like the kid Jarrad Davis over at Florida. He's kind of the same body type with long arms and very, very strong as a young guy and runs really well. I look at him in the future as the Mike linebacker for us.
"He takes a lot of pride. If you tell him to go in and be the best kickoff-return guy in blocking, he's going to go in and meet for 25 minutes a day and make sure he knows exactly what his guy's doing. He embraces whatever role you give him. Our saying is you get what you deserve, and he's deserving to be on the field now.
"Next week we're looking to play him at some more Mike, probably around at least 20 or 25 plays against South Carolina."
Kirkland is expected to make his return for the game against the Gamecocks, and Tennessee plans to use him with Colton Jumper, the former Baylor School standout who's played more than 400 snaps replacing Kirkland this season.
"You've got two really smart players, and that's kind of the creed of the room," Thigpen said. "If you're smart and you're tough, you can play for us, and both of those guys have proven they can operate on a high level of intellect when they're on the football field. Both of them can play in space, and they've got really good fundamentals.
"The fact that both of those guys are looking to be healthy in the future gives us a chance to win the coming games."
For those two to play together, though, one would have to move from the Mike linebacker spot to the Will spot on the outside, but Thigpen indicated it wouldn't be a big transition for either player.
"If you go by a two-by-two formation, one of them is outside the box," he explained. "If you go three-by-one formation, then the Mike is out of the box. Both of those guys' jobs are the same. It's just based on what formation you're giving them, and if you attach the formation, then both of them are in the box. The job is the same.
"Sometimes the run fits get a little bit different considering the Mike and the Will are in different positions, but the rules are the same for those kids based on the formation. They understand the big picture on where everybody's supposed to be. That's the good thing about Colton and D.K. on the field at the same time, is the communication part.
"You've got another mouth that can speak with the safeties or the corners and a Mike linebacker that can talk to the interior."
Of course, the way this season's gone, every linebacker will need to be ready to play every week.
"Regardless if you're the third, fourth or fifth guy, when your number's called," Thigpen said, "you've got to be prepared."
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