Yes, Darrin Kirkland Jr. is going to be the most important Tennessee football player in this game. It may sound crazy, but the Vols need the best combination of coverage and physicality to stop this balanced attack of ETSU.
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Kirkland is that guy. Coming off a season-ending injury last year, the junior looked fully back last Saturday. He was one of the few players on the defense able to make an impact, leading the team with 10 tackles and having a couple go for a loss.
With a photographic memory, Kirkland is the one guy who isn’t likely struggling with the transition to the 3-4 defense. And he’s at the perfect position for it too as an inside linebacker. That’s an area where the transition is usually extremely hard. But having that memory can offset it.
So Kirkland is a guy, provided he can stay healthy, who can handle offenses of all forms in the 3-4. As the inside linebacker fully able to handle the system, he can stop the run, he can drop back in coverage, and he will know where to be a lot.
That is going to be huge for the Vols on Saturday. They have to be able to shut down that ETSU offense early and often. And yes, things could get scary if they get caught napping. Kirkland is the key guy to keep that from happening.
If Kirkland doesn’t perform near the level he was at last Saturday against WVU, Tennessee football could be in for another frustrating outing. We already know how Vol Twitter overreacts to things. Imagine what happens if they struggle with ETSU in Jeremy Pruitt’s second game. It’s scary for Vol Nation to think about. To avoid it, Rocky Top needs Kirkland to perform above anybody.