Butch Jones enters the 2017 campaign on a steadily warming hot seat, and an injury to a key defender is going to make success harder to attain for Tennessee’s head coach.
According to Brent Hubbs and Austin Price of VolQuest, a Rivals affiliate, Darrin Kirkland Jr. will miss the entire season due to a torn meniscus.
Kirkland, who missed five games in 2016 because of an ankle injury, managed 45 tackles in eight appearances as a sophomore.
The Vols already knew he would be sidelined for the opener against Georgia Tech, so defensive coordinator Bob Shoop previously addressed how they planned to adapt.
“Obviously, we were thrown a little bit of a curveball with Kirkland,” Shoop said, per David Cobb of the Times Free Press. “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 ranked fourth on the team with 61 tackles last season, so his experience isn’t in question. The potential problem for the Vols is depth at linebacker, where they’ll be relying on young players like Austin Smith, Daniel Bituli and Will Ignont to play meaningful snaps.
In the Labor Day showdown with Georgia Tech specifically, Tennessee faces a unique challenge with the triple-option offense. Linebackers are tasked with closing specific gaps, and one mistake can result in an explosive play. The reserves cannot afford to let that inexperience show.