By Alex Norman

He’s become the main man on the Tennessee defense. Darrin Kirkland Jr. collected 66 tackles as a true freshman in 2015… and he’s just getting started.

“Coming into year two I have more confidence and my teammates have more confidence in me so that’s the biggest thing from year 1-2,” said Kirkland.

The Indianapolis native hadn’t even turned 19 years old when he was named the Vols starter at middle linebacker early last season.   Kirkland proved what he was capable of in those final 10 games, exceeding the high expectations that were already in place before he ever set foot on the Tennessee campus.

“I felt that I was ready. I knew what I could bring to the team.  Overall as I learned more, I got better and hopefully that will carry over to this season,” said Kirkland.  “Really being leader of the defense, the “Mike” linebacker is the leader of the defense… so really just coming into that role, as I get older I’m putting more trust in my teammates as they put more trust in me.”

It’s pretty good odds that Darrin Kirkland Jr. will be there in center of the action for the Tennessee defense for at least the next two seasons.

“I like being in the middle of the defense, not necessarily as a coverage guy or a pass rusher, you get to do both,” said Kirkland. “It’s just fun to show the different aspects of being a football player on defense.”

Having a steadying force in the heart of the defense gives Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, and new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop one less thing to stress over.  Shoop hasn’t been on campus very long.  He was hired to replace John Jancek back in early January.  But even in that short period of time, he and Kirkland appear to have a solid partnership.

“He (Shoop) is a smart individual,” said Kirkland. “He has helped our defense with communication, installing his ideas with our personnel, and has really helped our defense.  He helps with pressure, our communication… and he offers more (in terms of) learning the game overall and learning situational things.

Kirkland is just one of a large number of talented players that will take the field for the Vols defense in 2016.  One player in particular that stood out to Kirkland is sophomore tackle Khalil McKenzie.

“From year one to year two his body has changed a lot,” said Kirkland. “Khalil lost some weight… gained some muscle, and has been more explosive this spring.  That helped his game and helped our defensive line with the more reps he has gotten this spring.”