KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee football will take center stage Monday night, the nation looking on as the No. 25-ranked Vols play Georgia Tech.
Colton Jumper, a former 2-star walk-on from the tiny town of Lookout Mountain, Tenn. (pop. 1,888), will be responsible for quarterbacking the Big Orange defense from his middle linebacker position.
The Vols lost star middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. to a season-ending knee injury last week, and on Friday, starting strongside linebacker Austin Smith sustained a knee injury.
That leaves Jumper and weakside linebacker Cortez McDowell as the only sure things, as Tennessee coach Butch Jones has not spoken to the media about how Smith’s injury occurred or how the Vols might adjust.
Senior Elliot Berry and junior Dillon Bates seem to be the most likely options at strongside linebacker, but sudden change is nothing new to Jumper.
It was Jumper who filled in for Kirkland last season, when Kirkland suffered a high ankle sprain during the second game of the season in Tennessee’s 45-24 win against ACC divisional champ Virginia Tech.
This time, Jumper has to direct the Vols’ defense against one of the most challenging styles of offense in football, the triple option.
“We all have tremendous confidence in Colton and the guys behind him,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said.
Indeed, Shoop has been complimentary of Jumper since the start of preseason camp, even before Kirkland was lost for the season.
He’s vocal, he’s physical, he has himself in great shape,” Shoop said in August. “It’s a great opportunity for him.”
Except Jumper very nearly didn’t get an opportunity to play college football coming out of high school.
“You see these guys that are 5 stars and recruiting is fun for them, but for me, I was the one calling the coaches, I was the one putting in the work, and getting rejected, and so that stung,” Jumper said. “At one point I was like, ‘I’m done with this. I don’t want to go through recruiting any more. I’ll just go in college somewhere,’ because I was getting so tired of it.”
Jumper’s sister did what she could to help, approaching Shoop when he was the Vanderbilt defensive coordinator and providing him film of Colton along with a request to recruit him.
Now, Shoop said with a chuckle, “I didn’t think he was good enough back then.”
But then Navy called Jumper with a scholarship offer and Jumper said that renewed his enthusiasm to play at the FBS level.
However, there was another complication.
“You have to go do medial tests, and I found out I had a kidney condition that disqualified me from the military service,” Jumper said. “So, then, after that I did post graduate school; it was supposed to be a year. I only stayed for a semester, got re-recruited, same process again, didn’t really get recruited.
“So, basically Tennessee is where I felt the most comfortable; it was close to home and I knew a lot of people here. When I first came in there wasn’t a ton of depth at linebacker, so I thought this was the spot for me.”
Jumper wasn’t placed on scholarship, however, until last summer.
“When you work with Colton, you appreciate him more,” Shoop said. “T he guy has played when we won big games here, both at home and on the road. He has a great command of the defense … and he can solve and fix problems on the field, and that’s what you want.”
Jumper — who was a starter when Tennessee beat Florida and Georgia with backup linebackers last season — said he’s confident about the challenge the lies ahead.
“I was playing Sam [strongside linebacker] until [Kirkland] got hurt, but in the spring I had done reps in the middle, so I’ve played both,” Jumper said. “[Middle linebacker] is where I’ve naturally played for a while, probably since my freshman year I’ve been playing in the middle.”
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