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Tennessee Football: The most important players of 2017: #4 Darrin Kirkland Jr.

Kirkland is going to have to be a force in the middle.

NCAA Football: Tennessee Volunteers football practice Calvin Mattheis-USA TODAY Sports

Darrin Kirkland Jr. is one of the experienced returning veterans to the Tennessee defensive roster. Kirkland made six starts last year, but suffered from a high ankle sprain early in the season. He started ten games as a freshman in 2015.

Kirkland is just about the only thing we know for sure on the Tennessee linebacker depth chart. With uncertainty all around him, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is going to need his junior linebacker to step up and show out.

Here’s what our staff had to say about Kirkland, plus where they individually ranked him on their list.

Terry Lambert: #5

Someone asked me a couple months back what Tennessee’s greatest strength was on defense. Surprisingly, I defaulted to the linebackers. I think this group is pretty talented and experienced now. But Kirkland is the leader. Shoop needs Kirkland to be the leader of the defense and a consistent force against the run. They can’t have a repeat of last year’s run defense. Hopefully Kirkland can stay healthy and put together a full campaign.

Conner Knapp: #9

Darrin Kirkland Jr. suffered a high ankle sprain against Virginia Tech in 2016, and the Vols’ linebacking corps suffered in his absence. After he returned, Kirkland was arguably the best player on what was left of Tennessee’s defense at the end of the season. Entering his junior year, Tennessee needs Kirkland to produce in a big way and he certainly has the ability to deliver.

Evan Winter: #2

Kirkland Jr. has officially become the most important Vol on defense throughout the summer due to his athleticism and need at the position. His biggest issue has been health, as he is currently nursing a knee injury. The Vols need him to be a stalwart in the middle in order for their defense to be a complete unit.