Freshman molds himself into Tennessee's starting 'Mike'

One player on Tennessee's young team became the fit the team needed down the stretch as it ran off five consecutive victories in its best season in almost a decade.

Darrin Kirkland isn't exactly your typical alpha male.

He's not the loudest guy or the most imposing presence among a sea of enormous guys inside Tennessee's locker room. He's definitely not the oldest, either. At 19, Kirkland isn't the typical embodiment of a fierce middle linebacker at first glance when the cameras are rolling and the subdued freshman speaks with a measured calm. 

But give him some football pads. Tape up his ankles. Wait for the familiar shriek of a referee's whistle to pierce the sky. That's when he transforms. 

The Vols needed a middle linebacker. After the departure of A.J. Johnson, Butch Jones' team didn't have a true headhunter in the middle in 2015, so he was forced to find one among a pool of unpolished, yet talented, players. After more than five guys battled it out for the job over spring football and into fall camp, walk-on Colton Jumper and Kirkland became the two to beat. 

Jumper orginally won the job, to the surprise of many, but was soon usurped by a more athletic Kirkland after the Oklahoma game Sept. 12. 

"In the beginning, I really just had to learn the defense for myself to have that command response to other players," Kirkland said. "Once I was able to be on the field and make plays with the guys, really, just their comfort level with me helped a lot." 

The hard-hitting, instictive Indianapolis native locked down the middle linebacker spot and, in the process, his confidence in barking the defensive calls and being the alpha male the 'Mike' linebacker role typically needs to be. 

Was the team resistant to a young player embracing that role the way Kirkland did so early in his career? 

"Not necessarily resistant, but not as comfortable I would say," Kirkland said. "I wasn't as comfortable making those calls either. As the season went along, we got more comfortable as a group, and I think that showed in our play." 

Sixty tackles, two sacks and and one interception later, Tennessee's team has found no trouble accepting Kirkland as its enforcer both in the locker room and the middle of the field. The 6-foot-1, 224-pound sensation with a mind like a computer enjoys success when the pads are poppin and when the film is flashing.

"There's a lot more the coaches have taught me about myself and the football game," he said. "I've really just become a student of the game overall this year, so I'm really proud of that." 

He's not quite there yet. Kirkland wants to improve his aggressiveness and continue to fill his photographic memory with as much football information that it can absorb. There were times against Alabama and Arkansas when he said he really felt like a freshman against stronger and more physical linemen, and that will surely change as Kirkland gets stronger and more physical.

"I've got a lot of room for improvement," Kirkland said. "Really, my physicality (and) my mental capacity for the game is going to grow. I'm really just excited about the future. Next year is going to be a big year for me." 

It could be a big year for Tennessee, too, as it returns a bevy of starters and one of the most experienced coaches in an SEC East littered with coaching changes and rebuilding programs.

Darrin Kirkland will be there in the middle to take part in the mayhem as the Vols work earnestly toward their first SEC East title since 2007. Just don't expect him to be quiet when he does it. 

After all, he's a middle linebacker now.

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