Seniors: Darrin Kirkland Jr., Dillon Bates
Juniors: Daniel Bituli, Quart’e Sapp, Austin Smith
Sophomores: Will Ignont, Shanon Reid, Solon Page III, Jordan Allan
Tennessee has always been known to have dominating linebackers. Al Wilson, Leonard Little, Raynoch Thompson, and Kevin Burnett are just a few great linebackers who made their names playing for the Vols.
Coming into the 2018 season, Tennessee has a solid number of linebackers on the depth chart, but there’s not a great amount of experience at the position. Though they are inexperienced, the Vols certainly have young talent at linebacker and will look to develop their young linebacker squad during spring practices.
Senior Darrin Kirkland Jr. looks to start again in his final year in Knoxville after sitting out the majority of the 2017 season due to injury. The star linebacker out of Indianapolis, Ind. will look to end his college career with a bang and pick up right where he left off before injury sidelined him. If he can stay healthy, Kirkland could be the best defensive player on Tennessee’s depth chart for 2018.
Daniel Bituli burst onto the scene in Tennessee’s first game of the season in 2017 against Georgia Tech when he totaled 23 tackles and forced a fumble. In his sophomore season, Bituli recorded 90 tackles, three tackles for loss, a forced fumble, three passes defended, and one interception which he returned for a touchdown against the eventual National Champions, Alabama. Bituli should come out and have an even better 2018 season than he did in 2017. He will be a key player for the Vols in 2018.
After Kirkland Jr. and Bituli, the third, and possible fourth, linebacker spot is up for grabs this spring. New head coach Jeremy Pruitt is known for running the 3-4 defense but has said that he isn’t sure if he will switch from the 4-3 style defense. Either way, only two linebacker spots are essentially taken, and young talent will have to fill the final spots.
Juniors Austin Smith and Quart’e Sapp contributed in 2017, but it was nothing to get excited about. Smith had his best performances at defensive end, so he may stay and help the defensive line, though Pruitt did say recently that he views Tennessee’s current defensive ends as outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme. There are a trio of sophomores, however, who could make an impact and secure a starting job for the Vols in 2018.
Will Ignont, Shanon Reid, and early enrollee Jordan Allen all look to make a name for themselves in Pruitt’s rookie season. Ignont was a highly-rated recruit out of Alabama in the 2017 recruiting class, so Pruitt and staff may be able to develop him enough and use his skill sets to their advantage for Ignont’s sophomore season.
Jordan Allen comes from the City College of San Francisco in Tennessee’s 2018 signing class. Allen was the No. 9 overall JUCO prospect according to ESPN in the 2018 recruiting class, and his size and experience could help him earn a starting job in his first season in Knoxville. Though he played as a defensive end for the majority of his time at CCSF, Pruitt and staff look to use the 6-5, 230-pound California native at linebacker.
Projected Initial Depth Chart:
Kirkland Jr. and Bituli will more than likely be two starters. Ignont, Allen and Sapp could fill the final roles, but spring and fall camp will be more telling. Reid and Bates will be reserves, and the rest of the linebackers on the depth chart could fall in accordingly. Four-star J.J. Peterson will join the fray in the fall.
Check out our previous position preview piece on the Vols’ cornerbacks