KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. is continuing a recent Volunteers tradition by emerging as an impact performer on defense as a freshman.
Kirkland has found a home as Tennessee's starting middle linebacker. He heads into Saturday's regular-season finale against Vanderbilt (4-7, 2-5 SEC) with 57 tackles, the fifth-highest total of any Tennessee true freshman in school history. Arkansas' Dre Greenlaw is the only freshman in the Southeastern Conference with more tackles this season.
"I feel like I've gotten better throughout the year," Kirkland said. "I'm really proud of everything I've gotten to showcase so far. Hopefully I can just build on it in the future."
Kirkland is following a familiar pattern by making an immediate contribution his first year on campus. Tennessee (7-4, 4-3) has received a big performance from a freshman defender each season since Butch Jones took over the program.
Cam Sutton started every game for Tennessee two seasons ago and has since developed into one of the Southeastern Conference's better cover corners as a junior. Derek Barnett had 10 sacks and 20 ½ tackles for loss last season to set Tennessee freshman records in both categories.
Now it's Kirkland's turn.
He has solidified a middle linebacker situation that was so unsettled in training camp that six different candidates competed for the job. After opening the season as a reserve, Kirkland moved into the starting lineup for good in early October. His progress over the course of the season has coincided with the improvement of the entire defense, which has sparked the Vols' four-game winning streak.
"Really what separates great football players in going from good to great are the instincts, the things you can't coach, the ability, the knack to find the football and do those little things," Jones said. "Darrin does those things."
Kirkland's coaches praise his head for the game and his ability to handle such a demanding position so early in his career. Although Kirkland did enroll in college in January to give him a head start on most of his classmates, he didn't participate in spring practice because he tore his pectoral muscle during a weight -training session soon after arriving on campus.
He also has plenty of physical talent, most notably the sideline-to-sideline speed that has made him a natural fit for the middle linebacker spot.
"One thing I told him about himself is he's got talent I've never seen before, the way he goes to the ball and makes plays," senior safety Brian Randolph said. "He's running out there like a safety. He's just as fast as I am running out there, and that's definitely something you can't coach."
Kirkland said he has benefited from playing alongside junior Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who has a team-high 96 tackles and ranks fifth in the SEC with 8.7 tackles per game. Kirkland frequently has discussed how much of a role Reeves-Maybin has played in his own development.
"He really just told me to stay consistent with everything I do, to study the film like I'm a madman," Kirkland said. "Being with him, he just really brings me along. He's a great mentor overall."
Those lessons from Reeves-Maybin clearly have paid off lately. Kirkland has made 22 tackles over his last three games and had a fumble recovery last week in a 19-8 victory at Missouri.
The development of former freshman standouts Sutton and Barnett give Tennessee plenty of confidence in what Kirkland could accomplish down the road. He already has come a long way in a short time.
"It's a lot different from being in high school," Kirkland said. "Playing college football provides a whole new challenge. I'm just happy I'm able to grasp it."
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