Summer Battlegrounds: Inside Linebacker

    by -

    Darrin Kirkland Jr-1

    A look at some of the top position battles that will continue into the weight room and summer workout sessions as the Vols prepare for fall camp.

    Inside linebacker

    Top Contenders:
    • 
    (Fr.) Darrin Kirkland Jr.
    • (RS Jr.) Kenny Bynum
    • (Soph.) Jakob Johnson
    • (RS Fr.) Dillon Bates

    Others to keep in mind:
    • (RS Fr.) Gavin Bryant
    • (Soph.) Colton Jumper
    • (Jr.) Jalen Reeves-Maybin (Butch Jones has said he can play some inside linebacker in addition to his outside linebacker spot)

    Outlook:

    Few positions have as much uncertainty as the inside linebacker spot that’s been occupied by A.J. Johnson for much of the past four seasons. If you’re looking for a leader in the clubhouse so to speak, redshirt junior Kenny Bynum got a majority of the first-team reps late in spring in this injury-riddled group. Bynum was solid in his start in the TaxSlayer Bowl win over Iowa last season and seems to be a safe option if the Vols go that way.

    But there are a lot of options behind him. True freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr. enrolled early, but missed spring with a shoulder injury. The coaching staff is extremely high on him. He certainly has the potential to factor in the race, but it’s hard to say what he can do until he gets on the field. Jakob Johnson is somewhat of a project player who got a taste of action last year when A.J. Johnson was first suspended. He took some lumps, and though he’s also battled an injury over the offseason and missed spring, he can make a push later this summer.

    Dillon Bates is an intriguing option as well. The former top-100 recruit got a medical hardship after getting just a taste of the field in 2014 as an outside linebacker. He got a lot of work inside this spring while recovering from a shoulder issue himself. He’s versatile enough to play at all the linebacker spots, but the coaching staff seemed set intent on getting him a fair look inside in the spring.

    Who has the most to gain this summer:

    It’ll be a big one for the young injured players (Kirkland, Johnson, Bates) as they work to not only get healthy, but add whatever strength they can and learn the intricacies of the defense.

    Johnson and Bates can make big second-year steps after getting limited work as freshmen last season. Kirkland will get some of his first chances to show that he can be a legitimate contender for the spot.

    Predictions:

    This is one of the true battleground for this team and it’s tough predict who will be the opening-day starter and if that person will be able to hold the spot throughout the season. If Kirkland lives up to some of the hype we’ve heard about him, he’s going to have a chance to be an instant-impact type of player, but we’ll have to see it in fall camp to fully believe it.

    Bynum has a decent shot to get the first crack at it, but Kirkland, Johnson, Bates and the others will make this a true position competition that will rage throughout the summer, into fall camp and possibly even into the season.