As Jashon Robertson continues battling an ankle injury that has nagged him all year, his starting guard spot has been a battle between youthful up-and-comer and seasoned veteran. Senior Mack Crowder and freshman Jack Jones have both seen time at guard this season, but coach Butch Jones chose to go with the elder body at the position against Kentucky with Robertson still sidelined.
"It's the grading of the games, and it's nothing against Jack," Jones said. "Jack has done a good job, but you guys don't see what we see every day, and Jack is a good football player. Jack is going to be a great football player and I love him to death. He understands the things he needs to work on. Sometimes it's just from the strength standpoint of being a true freshman."
Crowder, who moved over from center to play guard, has seen extensive time at the position this season with Robertson sidelined and could get the start against the Gamecocks if Robertson still isn't ready to play.
"Mack has the experience," Jones said. "Mack has done some good things and performed very well when he's gone in there, but again it's been good to have the luxury of being able to play some of those individuals."
What was once thought to be a thin unit has pleasantly surprised with its depth as young players like Jack Jones and Chance Hall step up in big-game situations with injuries taking their toll. No matter who starts, though, Jones has been pleased with the production he's gotten at the position with his starter hurt.
"We thought Mack Crowder did some really good things for us at the left guard position," Jones said. "Then when Jack went in there, Jack did some good things."
Coming Up Kirkland
Darrin Kirkland made himself a household name to Tennessee fans this season after solidifying the starting middle linebacker spot. Against Kentucky, the freshman turned in perhaps his best performance to date, notching six tackles and an interception to help lead his team to a 52-21 blowout win over the Wildcats in Lexington.
"I'm very confident in my game, just knowing I can make plays on the field. I'm really just growing every week," Kirkland said. "Really just the mental capacity that I'm able to uphold during the game. I'm able to troubleshoot on the field a lot better now, and I still feel like I need to grow. Different teams throw out different challenges, so just keep growing mentally overall."
Through eight games this season, Kirkland has produced 35 total tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks. The Indianapolis native, who considers guarding spread offenses as his "strong suit", enjoys competing in-game against teammate and mentor Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
"I always tell him before the game I'm going to get more tackles than him," Kirkland said. "It never actually works out, but we're going to get there one day."
Both players tied with six Saturday, but Reeves-Maybin didn't let the freshman off the hook.
"He still said I didn't get more tackles than him," Kirkland said with a smile. "It's kind of like a loophole I guess ... I guess it's a linebacker thing."
Brett Kendrick practiced Tuesday but has been ruled out for Saturday's game by Butch Jones. Kendrick started the first five games of the season at right tackle before succumbing to an elbow injury that has forced him to miss the past three games.
"He did practice a little bit (Tuesday)," Butch Jones said. "But (he's) not quite game ready."
Wide receiver Preston Williams (hamstring) is questionable, but Williams is scheduled to practice Wednesday. Freshman defensive back Stephen Griffin has been ruled "doubtful."
"All these individuals have worked hard to get themselves back," Jones said. "We really appreciate their efforts, so I'll know a little bit more about those individuals as the week continues to progress."