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Kirkland: “It’s My Time” To Lead The Defense

On paper, Tennessee’s defense looks like it might take a step back in 2017.

An already shaky unit from 2016 loses key pieces such as Derek Barnett, Cam Sutton, Corey Vereen and Jalen Reeves-Maybin (though he missed a majority of 2016 with an injury). But there’s still talent on that side of the ball, and the Vols will need some of it to step up and lead a group that will need to be more cohesive and confident in 2017 for the Vols to take a step forward in Bob Shoop’s second year in Knoxville.

“Even though there aren’t a lot of guys who are starters, there are a lot of guys with a lot of  experience,” said linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. “So it’s definitely a closed-meshed group and I feel like this group is really close-knit.”

Kirkland, who missed five games in 2016 with a high ankle sprain and then returned later in the year and played la less than 100 percent, is one the players Tennessee will lean on this upcoming season.

A former four-star recruit who found his way into the starting lineup early in his freshman season in 2015, Kirkland is a prototypical inside linebacker in the current landscape of  college football. He’s big enough to play in the middle of the defense and take on blockers in the run game, but quick enough to cover backs and tight ends and get sideline-to-sideline. That burst, however, simply wasn’t there last year as he battled the ankle injury.

It came back a bit after he was able to get rest before the Music City Bowl against Nebraska, but now the junior linebacker says he’s back to his old form.

“I was about 100 percent healthy about two weeks before we went on spring break,” he said. “There was a lot of rehab, a lot of recovery with Coach Rock (Gullickson) and our training staff did a great job really just adjusting my workout to make sure I was healthy for spring ball.”

Now, when Tennessee fans think about the cornerstones of the defense, instead of names like Barnett, Sutton and Reeves-Maybin, it’ll be players such as Kirkland that come to mind.

“This is my third spring now,” he said. “It’s a lot different now because I’ve always been a good player surrounded by great players, now I’m kind of the Last Mohican now, so I find myself being the main guy – the leader of the defense – and I embrace that role and know I have to bring it another level everyday…We always talk “about next guy up” and “it’s your time,” and it is my time, and I have to embrace that role and be the leader, be the Alpha male.”

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