Darrin Kirkland was forced to sit back and watch everyone else eat this spring while he waited more than four months for a taste of the main course.
The freshman linebacker enrolled early in hopes of diving headfirst into Tennessee’s football regimen when he tore his pectoral muscle during a January workout. Because of it, Kirkland was forced to miss out on all of spring practice, but now — just one-and-a-half months after being fully cleared to play — Kirkland is ready to feast.
The former Scout four-star recruit used his time around the program while he healed as a mental springboard that helped propel him into the list of final candidates for the open middle linebacker spot along with Kenneth Bynum and Colton Jumper.
“Really just go get the mental reps,” Kirkland said of how the spring benefited them. "Those were really big for me, just studying the defense and being in all the meetings. It really helped me a lot seeing how our guys do it and really getting to learn our style of play.”
The guy with a certified photographic memory and high football acumen got even better without playing a down. The mental reps he gained were enough to put him ahead of the curb when it came time for the athletic linebacker to slip the pads on, and the early indoctrination into the playbook and film room paid major dividends.
"I think when you look at him, first of all, he's very mature and he's another individual that was an early enrollee but didn't have the luxury of spring football coming off an injury,” head coach Butch Jones said.
“He's very mature. He's very, very intelligent. He's very instinctual and he can run. He has very good explosiveness, so he has the skill set that we are looking for at linebacker, but the football intelligence. Again, he can retain information immediately.”
That instinct has helped slow the game down for Kirkland, who turned in one of his most solid practices Monday.
“I kind of told my dad it kind of felt like I was in high school again, just kind of playing my game, instinctual, and getting to make plays within the defense, not being so robotic,” Kirkland said. “It felt really good to play my game.”
Being the middle linebacker in Tennessee’s system means being a vocal leader and making all of the calls at the line of scrimmage. There’s just no getting around it. But even as a young player, Kirkland seems to relish that aspect of the MIKE.
“For me it kind of comes naturally,” he said. “I had to do that in high school, be a vocal leader amongst a bunch of young guys. Now, it’s kind of role reversal. I just earned that respect from a lot of older guys like Curt (Maggitt), a lot of the older guys like (Derek) Barnett and just working together with them.”
Being comfortable on the field has made the transition from quiet freshman to loud gridiron leader a little easier than expected. Despite coming in as the low man on the totem pole, Kirkland flips a switch as soon as he steps on the field.
"He is very humble, very quiet off the field," Jones said. "He listens to what everyone says and takes it all in. On the football field he's extremely confident, very, very vocal and he communicates very well."
The third-year head coach hasn’t put a timetable on when he wants to have a starting middle linebacker named, and until that time Kirkland continues to get equal reps with Bynum and Jumper.
But as he battles with his teammates for a shot to start, he understands he can’t control how often he’ll play.
All he can do is continue to stay hungry.
“It would mean the world to me,” Kirkland said about starting as a freshman. “I’m a very competitive person. To be a first stringer as freshman would be a really big deal to me, but right now, I’ve just got to control what I can.”
Darrin Kirkland speaks on his fall camp progress
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