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What the departure of Darrin Kirkland Jr. means for the Tennessee defense

Tennessee is going to have to go younger, but is that such a bad thing?

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

At one time, Darrin Kirkland Jr. appeared to be in place to become the next great linebacker at Tennessee. The former four-star recruit played in every game during the 2015 season, which included 10 starts at middle linebacker as a true freshman.

That created some lofty expectations for Kirkland, who would be one of the key pieces of the 2016 defense. As you know, that 2016 team entered the season as a top ten team. That team never lived up to the hype. Part of the reason why was injuries and Kirkland was one of the first casualties to suffer.

Kirkland sustained a high ankle injury against Virginia Tech and wasn’t able to go for the next several weeks. He missed games against Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama — the bulk of Tennessee’s schedule.

2016 turned out to be a lost season. In 2017, Kirkland was expected to be one of the few returning leaders. However, a knee injury cost him his entire season. As it turns out, Kirkland played his final down for the Vols against Nebraska in the 2016 Music City Bowl.

Kirkland announced his intentions to move on from Tennessee on Thursday night. He will be a graduate-transfer and will have two more seasons of eligibility. Kirkland missed most of spring practice, but was still expected to be a key piece and a likely starter for the Vols in 2018 under new head coach Jeremy Pruitt.

The why on this Kirkland situation remains to be determined, but it’s not all that uncommon for players to leave during a coaching change. Every player isn’t made for every coach. Maybe Jeremy Pruitt’s culture wasn’t for Kirkland. Maybe the staff envisioned a role for Kirkland that he didn’t agree with.

Regardless of the reason, his departure frees up some playing time for younger players. Redshirt Junior Quart’e Sapp is likely the biggest beneficiary here.

You’re also now looking at Daniel Bituli as a likely starter in the 3-4 base package.

Outside of that, it’s fair to wonder how much playing time true freshman JJ Peterson will get. One of Tennessee’s highest rated recruits in the 2018 class, Peterson was already in the picture to play early, but he could end up contributing as the first linebacker off the bench from week one. His get-up-to-speed process will undoubtedly be hurried along.

We’ll see how Will Ignont, Shanon Reid and Dillon Bates factor in here in fall camp.

The loss of Kirkland is a definite blow to Tennessee’s depth and experience, but with a new scheme in what figures to be a transitional year on the field — is it the worst news in the world?

Probably not.