The news went from bad to worse on Wednesday.
Head coach Butch Jones announced that starting middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland would be gone for the foreseeable future, as he underwent surgery on a torn meniscus.
Butch Jones: Darrin Kirkland went through surgery today. It is a meniscus.
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) August 30, 2017
Losing a player the caliber of Kirkland would be difficult to overcome against any team, but having him out against Georgia Tech could be disastrous.
The Vols struggled against some high-powered rushing attacks when they lost Kirkland for five games a season ago and equal results could be on the horizon for Tennessee’s opener.
The Yellow Jackets run an unconventional “flexbone” offense that gives teams fits due to its uniqueness. Tech has a slew of running backs, receivers and quarterbacks that are capable of making plays out of the backfield and a missed assignment generally leads to splash plays for Paul Johnson’s offense.
Going with the next man up approach, the Vols will start Colton Jumper in the middle.
Jumper, a senior, made seven starts for Tennessee a year ago. He collected 61 tackles, four TFLs, a forced fumble and an interception. However, the former walk-on struggled against teams with a strong run game. He was out of position and consistently got turned around.
However there is no other linebacker on the roster that knows the defense better than Jumper. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has praised him, saying he’s worthy of a starting role.
With Jumper holding down a spot in the middle, fellow senior Cortez McDowell will line up on the strongside. McDowell too shared criticism with his play down the stretch in 2016. His play was inconsistent at times, forcing the Vols into some compromising situations.
Manning the “Will” linebacker was redshirt sophomore Austin Smith. But, he will miss the game due to an injury. The Buford, Georgia native played in all thirteen games as a freshman, but missed all of last season due to injury. Not to mention that Smith has moved between defensive end and linebacker multiple times in his career.
Despite all the questions, Vol fans should be optimistic.
These new starters have been given another offseason to settle in at their respective positions. They have been given weeks to prepare for the Yellow Jackets unorthodox offense.
Now it’s time for Tennessee’s linebackers to perform.