Tennessee has already had a small handful of players have to quit playing football due to injuries since the 2018 season came to an end. On Tuesday, that number grew by two.
According to long-time Knoxville media member Jimmy Hyams, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said during the SEC Spring Meetings on Tuesday that both redshirt senior linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. and redshirt sophomore tight end James Brown “have given up football.” Brown will take a medical hardship scholarship, and Kirkland graduated from UT and won’t take up a scholarship on the 2019 roster.
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said TE James Brown and LB Darrin Kirkland have given up football. Brown will take medical hardship. Kirkland has graduated. Pruitt said recently on WNML that Kirkland likely would not return.
— Jimmy Hyams (@JimmyHyams) May 28, 2019
Back in early April of this year, just days before Tennessee’s Orange & White Game, Pruitt appeared on Sports Radio WNML and said that Kirkland may possibly never play for the Vols again, but there were hopes the veteran linebacker could rehab and pursue a chance in the NFL.
“He had a little bit of a chronic knee (issue),” Pruitt said of Kirkland in April. “He’s had a couple surgeries on his knee. He is undergoing some treatment in Pensacola with James Andrews. It’s something that’s been done on several guys that play in the NFL that’s really extended their careers.
“Right now, he’s doing that. We’ve talked about the rehab part of it this summer and even the possibility of him not playing next fall and getting ready for the draft in January.”
Now, it appears those dreams of playing in the NFL are done.
Kirkland was a consensus four-star prospect coming out of high school in Indianapolis, Indiana, and he played in the U.S. Army All-American Game after his senior season. He was named to the 2015 All-SEC Freshman Team after his debut campaign with Tennessee, but that’s when injuries started to plague him.
After appearing in all 13 games as a freshman, Kirkland missed a large chunk of the 2016 season after suffering a high ankle sprain in the Battle at Bristol against Virginia Tech. He would miss five of Tennessee’s 13 games that season. Then during fall camp prior to the 2017 season, Kirkland suffered a season-ending knee injury before the season even began. He sat out during spring practices in 2018 and was limited to begin the fall. He ended up playing in all 12 games last season and made 11 starts, but he wasn’t as effective as he had been in the past.
The 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker played in 33 games as a Vol and totaled 162 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, two interceptions, four passes defended, a fumble recovery, and a touchdown on an interception return.
As for Brown, his Tennessee career never really got going.
Brown joined the Vols as a three-star prospect in the 2017 signing class. Brown played for Jones High School in Orlando, Florida and played quarterback for the Tigers. He did a little bit of everything for Jones out of the QB position, but he projected as a tight end in college.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound tight end suffered injuries early on in his UT career, and he was never able to stay healthy. He never appeared in a game for the Vols in his two-plus years on campus.
With Kirkland and Brown now no longer on Tennessee’s roster, the Vols have seen six players have to hang up their cleats due to medical issues since the 2018 season came to a close. The other four Vols who have medically retired from football are all offensive linemen. Chance Hall, Tanner Antonutti, Devante Brooks, and Eric Crosby have all had to call it quits this offseason.
Tennessee now has just four scholarship tight ends on the roster with a fifth joining the Vols this summer in three-star 2019 signee Sean Brown. The Vols also have only 10 scholarship linebackers with Kirkland’s departure, but they’ll be adding two more to that total when four-stars Henry To’oto’o and Roman Harrison join the roster this summer.