By Josh Ward | @Josh_Ward
Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. announced on Thursday that he has decided to transfer.
Kirkland, who shined as a freshman in 2015 but missed most of the last two seasons due to multiple injuries, had been a projected starter for the Vols this upcoming season if he had decided to remain with the team.
After starting 10 games in 2015, he was a preseason All-SEC pick by Athlon Sports in 2016. But he suffered an ankle injury against Virginia Tech in week two and hasn’t been at full strength on the field since then.
Kirkland’s status for this season was already an unknown because of his health issues; now his departure tells Tennessee’s coaching staff it will have to prepare without him.
Here are the players at inside linebacker to pay attention to as the Vols look for players to emerge with Kirkland leaving Tennessee’s program.
Daniel Bituli – Bituli missed a lot of spring practice due to injury, but he showed playmaking ability for the Vols last season. An animated Bituli was spotted on the sideline during the spring game even while he wasn’t participating. That’s the kind of fire Jeremy Pruitt has demanded from his players.
Quart’e Sapp – Sapp enters his fourth season at Tennessee and is now more than a year removed from the torn ACL that cost him most of the 2016 season. Sapp’s performance in the spring game wasn’t what he hoped, but he will have a chance to start and help lead Tennessee’s linebackers this fall.
Will Ignont – Ignont received praise from coaches and teammates last year as a true freshman for his understanding of the game. Ignont was a highly-touted linebacker in the 2017 class for a reason. Kirkland’s departure will give Ignont a chance to compete for a starting position.
Solon Page III – Page enters his second season at Tennessee after spending the last year working in the weight room to get bigger and stronger. Page, who was a Parade All-America honorable mention selection in 2016, recorded a sack in the spring game and will compete for playing time this fall.
Shanon Reid – Like Page, Reid arrived at Tennessee as a member of the 2017 class with the goal of getting bigger during his first year in Knoxville. Reid has been a special teams contributor and will compete for playing time this fall along with other young linebackers.
J.J. Peterson – Peterson was the highlight of signing day for Tennessee in February. The U.S. Army All-American chose Tennessee over Alabama and will have a chance to contribute for Tennessee this fall. Peterson was likely one of the players Pruitt had in mind in April when he talked about increased competition coming up this fall.
Dillon Bates – One of the few remaining members of the 2014 class will have a chance to play more at linebacker this fall. It’s more likely Bates makes his difference in special teams, but he’s the lone senior in this group and will see an opportunity to help at linebacker this fall.