The Times Free Press is taking a daily positional look at the 2017 University of Tennessee football team leading up to the first practice Saturday. Today we look at linebackers:
Everyone from last year's merry-go-round of linebackers returns this season, except for graduated reserve Kenny Bynum. The headliner of the group is Darrin Kirkland Jr., who is back for his junior season and poised to be the leader of Tennessee's defense from his middle linebacker position. The Indianapolis native worked back from an early-season ankle injury last season to reclaim his starting spot late in the year. Getting a full season out of a healthy Kirkland would be a relief to a Tennessee defense that must replace departed emotional leaders Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cam Sutton. One of the most intriguing position battles during preseason practice will be for the spot next to Kirkland. In most formations, the Volunteers use only two linebackers, meaning a long list of veterans and rookies will be vying for one spot. Cortez McDowell is one of the favorites after starting in four games and posting 54 tackles last season. Baylor School graduate Colton Jumper returns for his senior season after he filled in commendably for Kirland in 2016. Daniel Bituli, Quart'e Sapp, Austin Smith, Elliott Berry and Dillon Bates also are back and will add to the competition for playing time.
The addition of freshmen Shanon Reid, Solon Page III and Will Ignont means linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen might have to add a few new chairs to the linebackers meetings. Reid and Page have the physique to play outside linebacker and could enter the competition for the spot beside Kirkland. At 228 pounds, Ignont is a bit heavier than his freshman counterparts and is projected as a middle linebacker. Ja'Quain Blakely is back as a redshirt freshman and listed at 254 pounds on the roster. That could mean the coaches could groom him to be a contributor in specialty sets. A player of that size could also play defensive end, which is a position of need for Tennessee.
Tennessee's veteran depth at linebacker is an advantage. If injuries strike again in 2017, players such as Jumper, Berry and Bituli are game-tested, know the defense and should be ready to play. Kirkland is known for his football IQ. His intelligence and talent have him positioned for a breakout year. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has expressed that he's willing to put the two most talented players at linebacker, even if that means playing someone out of position. That should give incentive to Bituli, for example, who is typically cast as a middle linebacker but is unlikely to beat out Kirkland for the starting job at that slot.
The Vols could use more speed on the depth chart at linebacker. This unit has felt a step slow at times in the past few seasons, and if they wind up needing to use one of their heavier linebackers to play beside Kirkland, that won't change this season.
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com.