Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. had a very interesting offseason. In late May after the spring semester had ended, he announced on social media that he intended to transfer off the Vols’ roster and pursue other football opportunities as a grad transfer.
But just a few days later, he walked back that decision and decided to stay reportedly after he and his family met with Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt that weekend. Kirkland elected to come back for his redshirt junior season instead, and his brief moment of transfer was over.
Kirkland spoke to the media this week for the first time since that incident, and he says he’s ready to move on and get ready for this season.
“The past is the past,” Kirkland said during a media availability on Thursday. “I’m really comfortable with this university. I love this university. We have the best fans in the universe. I’ve graduated from here, and I fulfilled that obligation to get a degree. That decision was a family one, but I’m looking forward to moving forward with Coach Pruitt and the defense, and I’m excited to be here.
“No individual is bigger than the team. So I just tried to stay focused on the goal at hand, and that’s winning a championship here.”
Kirkland reiterated multiple times that his initial decision to transfer wasn’t one he made “lightly or emotionally.” He said his teammates were a big reason he decided to come back, and that Pruitt didn’t use any sort of sales tactics to try and convince him to come back. In fact, it was Pruitt’s support of Kirkland no matter what decision he made that spoke the most to him.
“It wasn’t a sales pitch, he was just very supportive of whatever decision I wanted because he just wants what’s best for me and the best for any player on this team,” Kirkland said of Pruitt. “So I was happy with that and that he just supported my decision. It wasn’t a sales pitch, he was just supportive.”
Now that Kirkland is back, he’s focusing on what he can do this season now that he’s healthy. Kirkland missed all of last season due to injury, and he missed a large part of the 2016 season because of a high ankle sprain too. He even had to sit out during spring practices earlier this year as well.
Kirkland’s ceiling looked extremely high after posting an All-SEC Freshman season in 2015. But then all those injuries happened. The last two years have been the first experiences the redshirt junior has dealt with in terms of injuries, and he said it’s not been easy to sit back and watch from the sideline.
“It was difficult for me personally not to be on the field, but I’m excited to move forward and happy to be back on the field this season,” Kirkland stated. “My teammates keep me up, my coaches keep me going, but going through injury like I have the last couple years has been tough. But it’s only made me stronger as a player and a man.”
According to Kirkland, this fall marks the first time since “the spring before the season I got hurt in fall camp” that he’s felt as good as he does now. That would’ve been the spring of 2017, and this fall has seen him return to the field for the first time since the start of fall camp last year.
“It’s difficult and takes a lot of mental focus,” Kirkland said of bouncing back after injury. “My teammates really help me a lot, so I’m happy to be there for them now.”
Kirkland said he felt 100 percent on “day one of the summer” this year, and he thinks Tennessee’s new strength and conditioning staff have done wonders for him.
“Shout out to our strength staff, they’re the best in the country and get me prepared every single day,” Kirkland added. “I felt really comfortable with them and moving on in the summer.”
Kirkland said he attended all the team meetings in the spring despite not being out on the practice field, but now he’s excited to be back out on the field and ready for the season to start. And how has he looked on the field so far during fall camp? According to his head coach, he’s been improving every single day and has been impressive.
“He’s a smart guy, and he has a really good understanding of the defense,” Pruitt said of Kirkland on Thursday. “That says a lot about him because he didn’t take part in any reps in the spring. He picks things up fast. I think the guy is instinctive. I think he shows some toughness, he’s got quickness.
“Every day that he’s out there, I see him improving and gaining confidence with himself and what he can get done.”
The redshirt junior has plenty of competition at inside linebacker this fall from both Daniel Bituli and Quart’e Sapp, but now that he’s fully healthy again, he won’t be easy to keep off the field.