Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was dealt a big blow last week, losing his middle linebacker and leader of the defense, Darrin Kirkland Jr. There’s never a good time to lose a guy like that, but this news came just a week before the Volunteers were set to face Georgia Tech’s flexbone offense.
After an entire offseason of preparation with Kirkland, Shoop and Tennessee were forced to shift gears at the last second.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see six or seven linebackers,” Shoop said. Senior Colton Jumper has already been deemed the new leader of the defense, filling in for Kirkland. But unlike last year, Shoop has more options to turn to at linebacker.
He mentioned redshirt junior Dillon Bates, specifically. We haven’t seen much out of the 6-3, 224 pound linebacker to this point in his Tennessee career, but it looks like that’s about to change.
“Bates is gonna play quite a bit. He’s done a really good job,” said Shoop. “He’s focused in and we’ve given him a very specific role — he’s done well with it.”
“For this particular game, we’re excited. We’ve got them aligned where we think we need them aligned,” Shoop continued. “Whether it’s Bituli, who’s had a really good camp, whether it’s Austin Smith — it’s great to have him back in the mix. Jumper and Bates have practiced really well.”
Shoop insinuated that we may not see a lot of freshman linebacker Will Ignont on Monday, saying “This (Georgia Tech’s offense) might not be his cup of tea, but he’s going to be really good and play a lot this year.”
He finished by mentioning Quart’e Sapp, Elliott Berry and Cortez McDowell. “In some way, shape or form, you’ll probably see any or all of those guys this week.”
“We can’t dwell on DK not being there. I feel worse for him than I do for anything else. Injuries are a part of it, we’ve dealt with it before,” Shoop said.
Shoop praised the defense as a whole for their work in camp, calling them “steady-eddy.”
Steady certainly wasn’t a word that you would used to describe the defense at the end of last year, but this group is certainly deeper and more experienced this time around. As long as guys like Jonathan Kongbo, Darrell Taylor and Kahlil McKenzie step up and live up to expectations, the defense has a chance to really improve in 2017.