The official depth chart handed to the media on Monday contained no changes after the Vols’ 31-24 double-overtime loss to Oklahoma last weekend, but an updated version of it on UT’s official website has some adjustments as the Vols prepare for FCS foe Western Carolina on Saturday.
Most notably, true freshman linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. is now listed as the starting inside linebacker after sophomore walk-on Colton Jumper got the start there the first two games against Bowling Green and Oklahoma. Jumper seemed to struggle against OU. He was flagged for two crucial defensive holding calls late in the game that extend an OU drive, was unable to bring down OU quarterback Baker Mayfield on a free rush and has recorded just six total tackles in two games as a starter.
Butch Jones, who has regularly reminded fans to take the depth chart with a grain of salt, didn’t confirm that Kirkland would start when asked about the position earlier this week, but did say the competition would be ongoing.
“Well, just like every position, it will be every group with competition,” Jones said. “[Jumper] has done some good things, but we continue to need productivity from our MIKE linebacker, and just like every week, they are going to have to compete for the position. The individual who has the best week of preparation and practice will be the one who runs out with the first unit. To me, that is healthy. You want competition. As a competitor, you want competition each and every day because that is how you grow, develop and mature.”
Kirkland a four-star recruit in the 2015 class out of Indianapolis, has recorded five stops in limited action through two games. He recorded a sack in the opener against Bowling Green that almost led to a defensive touchdown for him:
Darrin Kirkland Jr. True Freshman. Vols robbed of a touchdown due to an early whistle. https://t.co/vlLkIFeLxt
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) September 5, 2015
And with the confirmation that senior defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt is out 6-10 weeks, the Vols made some adjustments at linebacker as well. Since the depth chart is generally written for a 4-3 look, Maggitt is normally listed as the starting SAM linebacker. Freshman Austin Smith out of Burford, Ga., has been penciled in there. Corey Vereen remains listed as the starting defensive end opposite of Derek Barnett.
“He has done a very good job,” Jones said of Smith on Wednesday. “He gets better each and every day – his attitude, mentality from a physical standpoint. He is very explosive, can run, has worked hard in the weight room. His attitude – he wants to compete like all the freshmen and all the players in our program. It’s been great. He has been wearing us out on special teams. Everyone’s learning curve and growth curve are different based on each individual. I have been very pleased with him, and he is going to get playing time Saturday because of it. He has earned that.”
Jumper is listed as the backup at both MIKE and SAM linebacker. Senior safety LaDarrell McNeil has yet to be added back on the depth chart, though Jones has confirmed multiple times that he’s been cleared to play after missing the opening two games with “neck instability.”