KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. has no timetable to return — or undergo surgery — after suffering a knee injury in Friday’s practice.
Coach Butch Jones provided the update Sunday night on “The Nation” radio show on WNML.
Sources have told SEC Country that Kirkland’s injury, which they said involves a torn meniscus, could require surgery pending thorough examination and testing.
Jones said nothing had been determined as of Sunday night.
“Right now he’s still being evaluated,” Jones said. “We’re going through that evaluation phase right now, so no timetable.”
Rash of injuries
The Vols have had a recent rash of injuries, though nothing to the extent of last season, when UT led the nation with 52 starts missed due to injury.
Most all of the injuries this fall have been of the pre-existing or recurring variety: Offensive tackle Chance Hall (knee), offensive tackle K’Rohjn Calbert (knee) and receiver Josh Smith (shoulder sprain).
Kirkland had arthroscopic knee surgery in June.
Left tackle Drew Richmond missed practice last week on account of what Jones said was an undisclosed ailment, opening the door to some speculation that he might miss the opening game.
Jones did say it was possible Smith could be back for next Monday’s game against Georgia Tech, though with all the time he has missed, it’s hard to imagine his presence carrying much significance beyond the sideline.
Heart of the defense
Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop made it clear in the offseason that Kirkland was potentially the most important piece to the defense. The middle linebacker is considered the quarterback of the defense on most teams, often calling the signals, making the formation adjustments and calling out audibles.
Kirkland started 10 games as a freshman in 2015 and has been considered one of the most promising stars on the Tennessee defense entering last season.
Kirkland, a 6-foot-1, 238-pounder, possesses great speed sideline to sideline and sure-handed open-field tackling ability.
The Vols have a serviceable replacement for Kirkland in backup middle linebacker Colton Jumper. But Jumper, a former walk-on, has yet to show the same sort of speed, athleticism and play-making abilities as Kirkland.
Georgia Tech’s offense isn’t as likely to expose Jumper as much as SEC opponents down the line. The SEC teams have the sort of speed that, when spreading the field, exploited Tennessee’s linebacking corps last season.
Kirkland is not expected to play against the Yellow Jackets, but the Vols will have two more weeks after the Sept. 4 opener to game plan for Florida.
Shoop could potentially shift personnel for the game against the Gators on Sept. 16. If redshirt sophomore Quart’e Sapp has recovered well enough from the knee injury he suffered against Ohio last September, that could lead to senior Cortez McDowell shifting inside.
There are several other options: Shoop and linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said that senior Elliott Berry has had a good fall camp, along with redshirt junior Dillon Bates.
All of the coaches have seemed impressed with true freshman Will Ignont, but Ignont has not gotten enough reps in fall camp for significant snaps on defense in September.
Kirkland has suffered several injuries over the past year, going down with a high ankle sprain in the 45-24 win over ACC Coastal Division champ Virginia Tech in the second game of last season. Kirkland returned for the South Carolina game on Oct. 28, but he was clearly not 100-percent, as he had actually re-injured the ankle before the return.
The spring brought more setbacks, as Kirkland suffered a pulled hamstring and was one of 23 players to miss the Orange and White game in April. In June, Kirkland underwent arthroscopic knee injury after injuring it during training.
Sophomore Daniel Bituli, who has been groomed at the middle linebacker position, also had a procedure in June that forced him to miss time in fall camp. Bituli has been working behind Jumper in fall camp after returning from his knee injury.
Jones did not elaborate on how the linebacker position might get juggled, and Tennessee’s media plan does not call for any assistant coaches to be available to talk with the media until Thursday.
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