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Week 10 Tennessee X-Factor: Darrin Kirkland Jr

Tennessee faces a major rushing threat in the Wildcats on Saturday

East Tennessee State v Tennessee
The Vols’ front seven will be key this weekend
Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images

Let’s just be honest here, there’s no secret formula to the Kentucky Wildcat’s offense. They run the s*** out of the ball.

They are second in the SEC in rushing attempts, sitting just two spots behind LSU. A total of three rushing attempts are preventing the Wildcats from taking over the top spot.

Benny Snell Jr. is the lead man. He currently sits at ninth in the country when it comes to total rushing yards on the season. He averages over five yards a carry and already has 10 touchdowns on the ground through nine games.

Tennessee has just 11 rushing touchdowns.

But it’s not just Snell Jr in the backfield that will cause issues for the Vols. Backup Asim Rose leads the team with 5.5 yards per carry and quarterback Terry Wilson is second on the team with over 400 yards on the ground.

If the Vols want any chance to win on Saturday, then their defensive front will need to have their best game of the year.

It’s obvious that Tennessee has struggled up front this season. Whether it’s a lack of pass rush or the inability to fill running lanes, efficient offenses have found success throughout the season.

The team can make up for this, however, with good play from their second-level defenders. Daniel Bituli has kind of taken over as the “coach” on defense, but a behind-the-scenes player that should have a big impact on Saturday is Darrin Kirkland Jr.: the redshirt junior who has played more games in 2018 than the past two seasons combined.

Expect the Wildcats to get to the second level of the defense. You can bet the house on that.

What happens next is what could determine the outcome of the game.

The linebackers will be responsible for a lot on Saturday. Kentucky is very good at misdirection and Snell Jr is excellent at cutting across and finding daylight, even in some of the most crowded of backfields.

Tennessee is lucky. Kirkland Jr is a smart, athletic, instinctive linebacker that can fly around when he has help up front. If the Vols can find ways to disrupt Kentucky’s running game like the Bulldogs did last week, then Tennessee could easily find themselves in a position to win the game in the fourth quarter.

This is important because even though Kentucky has one of the most accurate passing games in the country, they still are in the bottom-10 when it comes to yards and attempts. It still figures as a very conservative attack despite the fact that the team averages over 10 yards a completion.

Wilson is more of a threat on the ground than he is with his arm, but that is still an advantage for the Wildcats if the Vols can’t keep a decent set of eyes on him. Kirkland Jr’s awareness should allow him to spy Wilson effectively, increasing his importance even more.

Expect to hear his name called a lot on Saturday and unless it’s because of injury, something tells me it will mean nothing but good news for the Vols.