The middle linebacker position was pared down to two candidates Wednesday.
Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek announced sophomore walk-on Colton Jumper and freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr. as the two finalists for the position, with redshirt junior Kenneth Bynum being eliminated from the race. Jancek plans to divide up the repetitions in practice evenly between Jumper and Kirkland Jr. as the Vols continue to arrange their starting lineup for the Sept. 5 opener against Bowling Green.
"It's really been narrowed down," Jancek said. "To get three guys reps at this stage in the season at camp, preseason, is hard to do. It's really between Colton Jumper and Darrin Kirkland right now."
Jumper's consistency in run fits and ability to make plays in space has vaulted him into serious contention as the starting MIKE linebacker in 2015 along with Kirkland.
"He's spent countless hours in the film room on his own, taking notes, watching video and all that hard work is paying off," Jancek said. "He's really a great example for a lot of players in college football. Guys that come as four or five stars but lack the maturity or the work ethic that it takes really make yourself a great player. I think Colton is an example of that. He's made himself a very good football player."
While the Vols would like to rotate players in and out of middle linebacker once the season begins, Jancek is set to find the guy who can be the premier starter at the spot.
"To play one guy 80 snaps, after a while that's going to catch up to you," Jancek said. "You saw the effects of that last season, so we're going to try and play multiple guys at all positions if we can."
The good kind of nickelback
The loss of RaShaan Gaulden for the season put a big dent in the secondary and opened up a major hole at the nickelback position Tennessee is now trying to fill. Sophomore cornerback Malik Foreman is seeing extended time at nickel with Gaulden out as Jancek searches for a respectable replacement for his potential starter.
While corner Cameron Sutton was also shifted around for some reps at the position, the Vols' defensive coordinator knows Sutton's true value comes when he's lined up outside.
"Malik Foreman's been in there right now and then obviously Micah (Abernathy) and Cam is getting some work in there," he said. "We're pretty limited at this point. We're leaving (Sutton) on the outside because I think that's where he best helps us. That was a big blow. That was a big blow, but nobody's going to feel sorry for us. We've got to move on. The guys have done a great job of picking up the slack and that's really all you can say."
Tennessee began spring practice this year with just two scholarship running backs on its roster. Sophomore Jalen Hurd and redshirt junior Alvin Kamara shared the bulk of carries despite being limited in practice at a position that desperately needed more bodies for depth.
Enter the youngsters.
Scholarship freshmen John Kelly and Joe Young not only give Tennessee two valuable players in the backfield who have the pleasure of learning from two experienced and tested teammates.
"In this league, the best groups have guys who can lead by example and I think for John Kelly and Joe Young, to have two guys like Alvin [Kamara] and Jalen [Hurd] to show everyday them how to practice, how to study in the meeting rooms, being accountable to each other. I think it's been really good. Both those guys are going to be able to help us this year."
Adding those two with Hurd, who rushed for nearly 900 yards as a freshman last year, and former Scout five-star Kamara, makes Tennessee's running back corps a valued asset heading into the 2015 season.
"We talk [about it] all the time, and I talk to Butch [Jones] about it," Gillespie said. "In this league, if you have three NFL guys in your room, three out of five or six, you've got it going. And I think right now we're kind of at that point where we have guys that it takes in this league to make plays and help us to be explosive running the ball."
John Jancek talks middle linebacker, nickel position, more
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