Darrin Kirkland Jr. likened the feeling of his pectoral muscle tearing to being shot in the chest or, at best, someone rearing back and punching it really hard.
The early enrollee was bench-pressing 335 pounds in a winter workout session when the weight overpowered his shoulder and tore his muscle right off the bone.
It was a gruesome injury Kirkland will probably never forget — mainly because he has a certifiable photographic memory.
“Darrin has proven he can process information very, very well. He can also retain information very, very quickly,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “When he did his placement test … (it was) actually discovered that he had a photographic memory. Anytime you can have a (middle) linebacker with a photographic memory, it’s very encouraging.”
Now the true freshman with the “beautiful mind” is working hard to forget.
Kirkland is trying to put the injury that has sidelined him for the entire spring behind him and focus on rehabbing his shoulder and engrossing himself in the mental aspect of the game.
It’s something most people who know him realize shouldn't be too difficult.
“I’ve just been working with (defensive graduate assistant) coach (Larry) Knight and (linebackers coach Tommy) Thigpen trying to learn the playbook as best as possible, learn exactly what I’m going to be doing when I come in in the summer and in the fall,” Kirkland told InsideTennessee. “I’m looking forward to getting those live reps.”
While he continues to nurse his injury, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound freshman has his nose stuffed deep in the playbook and film room to consume as much information as possible. He’s also been able to participate in practices as an observer, picking up mental cues and signals that would otherwise go unnoticed in the fast pace of a Tennessee practice session.
“Really, I’m just breaking down the film, being the MIKE (linebacker) that coach Thigpen needs, really trying to lead the defense as best I can from the sidelines,” Kirkland said. “I’m learning the playcalls, learning hand signals, things like that to help me improve.”
He’s also been able to attack lower body workouts with an enhanced veracity while he lets his injured shoulder properly heal.
“I’ve been killing the lower body for the last two months that I’ve been injured,” Kirkland said. “I’ve seen a lot of improvement. I’ve gained about 12 or 13 pounds since I’ve been here. It’s been very successful for me.”
Kirkland has been able to benefit from the Vols’ new practice regimen for injured players while he rehabs. While the rest of the team enjoys off days, Kirkland and his fellow injured teammates take part in walk-throughs to make the most of their spring practice time.
“That’s really helped my development as far as getting some more mental reps and walk-throughs,” he said. “It’s been tough. It’s definitely a big learning experience for me, but I’ve gotten better from it.”
Expectations are for the Indianapolis native to be fully cleared to play by June, however, he plans on participating in upper-body workouts within the next couple of weeks.
Until then, he’ll continue to use his mental shrewdness to soak up what he sees in practice while actively trying to push his injury out of his mind and do the one thing that doesn’t come easy for him — forget.
“This is like the biggest injury I’ve had to overcome in my playing career so far, but it’s been a big learning experience for me and taught me a lot of confidence about myself,” Kirkland said. “When I come back, I’ll be stronger than ever.”
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