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Tennessee’s most important players for 2018: #9 Darrin Kirkland Jr.

The RTT countdown continues with Darrin Kirkland Jr.

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

The team here at RockyTopTalk has voted and compiled a list of the most important Vols for the 2018 football season. The countdown kicked off last week with returning star wide receiver Jauan Jennings at number 10. If you missed it you will definitely want to check it out right here.

We continue this week with No. 9, veteran linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr.

It’s no secret, Darrin has unfortunately had his fair share of struggles with the injury bug. Most recently, he missed the entire 2017 campaign due to a torn meniscus. He also missed multiple games during the 2016 season due to a high ankle sprain. However, when he is healthy Kirkland Jr. is a major contributor for the Tennessee defense.

The last time Tennessee fans saw a fully healthy Darrin Kirkland Jr. was 2015, his true freshman season. Despite his youth Kirkland Jr. started in 10 games, and appeared in all 13 games for the Vols. And, when he got on the field he certainly made his presence felt. His 66 tackles earned him 4th highest in total tackles on the team, behind only Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Brian Randolph, and Derek Barnett.

Listed at 6’1”, 238lbs Kirkland has great speed for his size. Along with that is his nose for the football. Here is a great example of these attributes in Darrin’s first ever college football game — I’m still not over this play being blown dead at the half yard line, by the way.

Kirkland Jr. should benefit considerably from playing middle linebacker in Jeremy Pruitt’s 3-4 system. In Pruitt’s last 5 seasons as a defensive coordinator — which includes 2 national championships and 3 appearances in the national championship game — a middle linebacker has led his defense in tackles. This is typically the case because of disruptive defensive line play which occupies blockers, and allows linebackers the ability to make plays freely.

In Pruitt’s system the middle linebackers are generally responsible for communicating the defensive calls to the front seven. In this role it is ideal to have a veteran leader, and Kirkland Jr. certainly fits this description.

There will be some significant competition for the middle linebacker spots, however. Both Daniel Bituli and Quart’e Sapp are extremely talented players that appear to be very capable starters.

Can Darrin Kirkland Jr. return to full health? That remains to be seen. If yes, he could absolutely serve as a dynamic starting middle linebacker in what should be a much improved Tennessee defense. Even if he is unable to secure a starting role he can provide high quality depth, something that will be an absolute necessity considering the difficult schedule this season. This is what makes Darrin Kirkland Jr. our number 9 most important player for the 2018 season.

Stay on the look out for our number 8 most important player coming in the next few days!