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Austin Smith and other Tennessee linebackers are making adjustments with Darrin Kirkland Jr. out of Monday's season opener against Georgia Tech because of a knee injury.

KNOXVILLE — The knee injury that will keep middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. out of Tennessee's season opener against Georgia Tech on Monday appears to have instigated a game of musical chairs.

The Volunteers were already likely to play three linebackers more frequently against the Yellow Jackets' flexbone offense than they will most of the season. But Kirkland's absence means the Vols will reach deep into a rearranged depth chart, with defensive coordinator Bob Shoop saying Thursday "six or seven" linebackers could play in the game at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

"Obviously, we were thrown a little bit of a curveball with Kirkland," Shoop said. "So we've also moved (Colton) Jumper there. We're going to play a lot of guys, probably more than you guys are probably thinking we are."

Jumper, a Baylor School graduate, had been practicing at Tennessee's third linebacker slot. Now Austin Smith and Daniel Bituli are now slotted to play there Monday, while three players are listed at the outside linebacker position.

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Daniel Bituli is expected to be part of the rotation at linebacker when Tennessee plays Georgia Tech to open the season Monday night in Atlanta.

Redshirt junior Dillon Bates, who had been playing outside linebacker, is likely to play some at middle linebacker in a substitute role behind Jumper, a move that may not be permanent, Shoop said.

"Again, the focus is on beating Georgia Tech," Shoop said. "The players may be in a different position as we get into a more traditional offense. For this particular game, we've got them aligned where we think we need them aligned."

Jumper said Thursday the hardest part of preparing for Tech's offense has been simulating its quickness in practice.

"When they come out, it's not like what you see on film," Jumper said. "It's going to be way faster than that."

Tuttle could play

Junior defensive tackle Shy Tuttle could be available Monday as he continues recovering from a knee injury.

"Shy is coming along and on schedule," Shoop said. "If he's ready to go against Georgia Tech, great. And if he's not, we'll throw him in there next week."

Shoop and head coach Butch Jones have praised Tennessee's training staff for its work in helping Tuttle return to practice.

"We're never going to put an individual in if we don't feel he's ready," Jones said Wednesday. "That's not right to do. But he's done everything we've needed him to do so far at this point in time. It could also be a game-time decision as well."

Tuning in

Tennessee will practice Saturday, but coaches and players will have time to watch some of the day's slate of college football before departing for Atlanta on Sunday.

Shoop noted Penn State-Akron, Alabama-Florida and Alabama-Florida State as matchups he plans to keep an eye on.

Junior safety Micah Abernathy said he plans to watch Auburn's opener against Georgia Southern. Abernathy's high school teammate and close friend Darius Slayton is a sophomore wide receiver for the Tigers.

Abernathy noted he'll also be watching Georgia Tech video Saturday.

Contact David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com.

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