It wouldn’t be Tennessee football without a little drama.
Linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. announced on Thursday of last week that he intended to transfer out of Tennessee’s football program and pursue graduate opportunities elsewhere. He had two years of eligibility remaining, and he appeared to want a change of scenery for those final two years of college football.
But then something changed over the weekend, and Vol head coach Jeremy Pruitt made it official on Tuesday of this week that Kirkland was staying with Tennessee after all. Pruitt explained to Chris Low of ESPN that he met with Kirkland and his family, and they all came to the conclusion that it was best for the injury-plagued linebacker to come back to Tennessee.
Pruitt was asked about that situation at the SEC Spring Meetings down in Destin, Florida. And per quotes from Mike Griffith of SEC Country, he addressed what happened with Kirkland’s change of heart.
“What happened with Darrin, he thought about looking into it, and we offered him any support we could, and he decided to stay,” Pruitt explained. “I think if somebody graduates, to me they have fulfilled their obligation. That’s my view. Who am I to stand in the way?”
The talk about graduate transfers if a big topic of discussion in the SEC right now thanks to Alabama once again attempting to block one of their grad transfers from going to another SEC school. Two years ago it was Maurice Smith who Nick Saban and the Tide were blocking. Now it’s offensive lineman Brandon Kennedy, and Kennedy reportedly is eyeing a transfer to either Tennessee or Auburn.
Pruitt seems okay with grad transfers. But that wasn’t his main point in this discussion.
Speculation about Kirkland’s situation ran rampant on social media and message boards after he announced his decision to transfer. Some thought he just wanted a fresh start elsewhere. Others thought he wasn’t happy at Tennessee and how his career has played out. But Pruitt doesn’t believe the latter of those was true at all.
“I don’t think Darrin was unhappy in any way,” Pruitt stated. “He just wanted to see if there was any other way he’d want to finish his career, and he decided he wanted to stay at Tennessee. He wanted to finish what he started. He’s been through some tough injuries.”
Over the last two seasons, Kirkland has missed more games than he’s played. He missed five games in 2016 due to a high ankle sprain, and he missed the entire 2017 season due to an injury he sustained in fall camp. That means he’s played just eight games over the last two years, and those eight games were two seasons ago.
When he’s been healthy, Kirkland has looked like an All-SEC performer. He was voted as a Freshman All-SEC player in 2015, and he showed some more of that potential in 2016 before his injury and during the Music City Bowl.
If Kirkland can stay healthy this season, he’ll likely start at one of the Vols’ inside linebacker spots in their new 3-4 defense. In his 21 career appearances at Tennessee, Kirkland has totaled 111 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, an interception, two passes defended, and a forced fumble.