Having Darrin Kirkland Jr. on this list could be very shocking to some. And I understand it. After a very strong freshman season, he missed most of 2016 due to injury and then missed all of 2017. Following that, Jeremy Pruitt took over, and he almost decided to leave this past offseason.
Add in the switch to the 3-4 defense, which is a rough transition for inside linebackers, and you could see why he’s expected to struggle this year. Some practice reports this fall camp have already alluded to that fact. So what’s with our faith in him?
Well, Kirkland has a photographic memory. So he’s one player who will actually have no problem actually learning the 3-4 transition. His intelligence allowed him to be an impact player in 2015. On top of that, we know he’s a very talented linebacker as well. The guy has athleticism and great instincts on the field.
As a result, it’s pretty clear that Kirkland will be able to settle into his role eventually once he gets used to being back on the field. And when that happens, Tennessee football will have a very valuable player in the middle.
Despite the talents of Daniel Bituli and Quart’e Sapp, I just have a hard time listing inside linebackers transitioning to a 3-4 defense as guys being able to be impact players their first year. It’s very rare, and that’s nothing on those two guys.
Kirkland is the one exception because of his photographic memory and incredible intelligence when it comes to picking up defenses. So yes, if he stays healthy, he’ll become a major force for Pruitt and the Vols. That’s why he’s on this list.