Tennessee football: How Darrin Kirkland Jr., Baylen Buchanan could save Vols defense

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 1: Darrin Kirkland Jr. #34 of the Tennessee Volunteers tackles Austin Carr #80 of the Northwestern Wildcats during the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 1: Darrin Kirkland Jr. #34 of the Tennessee Volunteers tackles Austin Carr #80 of the Northwestern Wildcats during the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images) /

Tennessee football’s defense is undergoing a rough transition to a 3-4. But Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Baylen Buchanan could save the Volunteers. Here’s how.

For the most part, you can pretty much guess where all the major issues will be on the 2018 Tennessee football defense. With a transition to a 3-4 defense under Jeremy Pruitt, you expect the Vols to struggle at inside linebacker and in the secondary specifically.

Things will be easier on the outside edge rushers, and the Vols have the players to make that area elite. Nose tackle solely depends on size, and while Pruitt doesn’t have a lot of it, the combination of Shy Tuttle and Alexis Johnson should be enough to be effective.

But when it comes to inside linebackers and the secondary, everything changes. And that transition is tough. This is where the play of Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Baylen Buchanan specifically could save the Vols.

Kirkland is returning from a season-ending injury. He, Quart’e Sapp and Daniel Bituli are competing for two starting spots on the inside. All due respect to Sapp and Bituli, the Vols need Kirkland to be the best player of this bunch.

This is because Kirkland has a photographic memory. So he should be the only player who has no issue making the transition to a 3-4. In fact, he should be able to pick up the defense immediately. Remember, before he got hurt, when he burst onto the scene in 2015? That was again due to him being able to quickly pick up the defensive scheme that John Jancek installed.

Now, Pruitt and Kevin Sherrer are installing the 3-4, and if Kirkland can emerge as a major player, that means that one of the biggest concerns with the transition is alleviated. Bituli and Sapp could have a much easier time as the other starter, but them on the field together without one guy completely understanding the defense could be a bit rough. As good as they are, it’ll take a year to learn this system.

Let’s move onto the secondary. Right now, the return of Todd Kelly Jr. at safety makes for at least the safety position overall in good shape. Kelly and Nigel Warrior are two of the smartest players on the roster, so they should be the guys who have no trouble picking up the 3-4. But at cornerback, this is a totally different story.

The entire unit was awful in spring ball, which is why Pruitt is turning to so many newcomers. The athletes there have potential. But they need one proven, stable player. That guy is Baylen Buchanan. The junior cornerback returns from a nagging injury last year, which may have limited his game in the spring. But he hasn’t lost his projected starting spot by any account.

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Buchanan’s lack of size is considered a bit of a drawback. But he’s athletic, he can stop the run, and, as his biggest asset, he can also pick up schemes quickly. Don’t forget that back in 2016, Buchanan was the first player to have his helmet sticker removed as a freshman, before even Warrior.

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Warrior, Kelly and Buchanan are all the sons of former NFL players. So you can’t leave Buchanan off this list as a legacy guy who grew up in football, which helps him a lot in picking up systems. Tennessee football desperately needs that right now. And if Buchanan can fill his role, all of a sudden, the Vols are in decent shape.

Consider that the biggest question surrounding the UT defense is the ability of the linebackers and cornerbacks to pick up the schemes. That makes for four major question marks at any given time on the field. If Kirkland and Buchanan can emerge, then all of a sudden you only have two questionable spots.

Of course, the size on the defensive line in the middle is also a question, but it’s more of a minor one. Still, Kirkland and Buchanan could limit the questions surrounding the Tennessee football defense significantly. Provided there are no key injuries, that would make for seven of the 11 spots on defense at any given moment to be in perfect shape, two to be a bit of a question and only two spots to be a concern.

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If you remember what the Vols went through back in 2012, having only two spots be a concern is highly desirable. So yes, Kirkland and Buchanan are going to be crucial to this team. They’re too smart not to be, and that’s why the Vols need them to save the transition to a 3-4.