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Tennessee junior linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. met with the media on Thursday after practice.
Rhiannon Potkey/News Sentinel

This is the second in a series evaluating how Tennessee stands at each position for the 2017 football season. Go to govolsxtra.com for the first installment.

When Tennessee coach Butch Jones addresses the increased demands of playing college linebacker, you can better understand how damaging a season-ending injury was to Jalen Reeves-Maybin in 2016.

“There’s so much that goes into that position now,” Jones said. “First of all, it’s a speed game.

“Used to be, the play was kind of restricted to the box from tackle to tackle. … You have to be a complete player in today’s world to play linebacker.”

Reeves-Maybin was just that. He had the instincts, experience and speed to play a challenging position. When a shoulder injury limited him to only four games, UT never came close to filling the void.

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Reeves-Maybin is off to the NFL, but the void remains. Darrin Kirkland Jr., who also was injured last season, clearly is the most proven player. UT is counting on less established players such as Cortez McDowell, Colton Jumper, Quart’e Sapp and Austin Smith making greater contributions.

There is younger help on the way, too.

► More: Butch Jones: “I don’t comment on rumors”

Daniel Bituli, who was one of the top prospects in Tennessee, played sparingly last fall. However, he got his teammates’ attention during bowl practice in December and followed that up with a good spring.

Experienced or not, UT’s linebackers all could benefit from their offseason workout regimen.

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UT Associate Athletic Director Jimmy Delaney offers some tips on getting tickets to a UT game and having an enjoyable game day experience.
Rachel Ohm/ News Sentinel.

“I think we have a little bit of a lighter linebacking group but a lot more speed, which I think in today’s game is something you need a lot,” Jumper said.

UT’s linebacking corps will be tested right away when it takes on Georgia Tech’s “flexbone” offense in the opener.

► More: Vols take a tougher stand on toughness

The vet: Tennessee coaches have been raving about Kirkland’s great memory since he started playing as a freshman two years ago. But the junior linebacker probably would like to forget the 2016 season.

When he suffered a high-ankle sprain in the second game, his season was never the same. He ended up starting six games, four fewer than he did as a freshman. And when he played, he didn’t have the same impact as in his previous season.

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones checks on injured linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. (34) during second half of their 45-24 victory over Virginia Tech at The Battle At Bristol Saturday, September 10, 2016 in Bristol, Tenn. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL) (Photo: MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

He was still limited early in training camp. However, his status changed quickly.

“Kirkland has really stepped up to what we were expecting him to be,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said.

► Adams: Vols need to be more resourceful to win SEC East

The future: While Bituli hasn’t been fully healthy in camp, freshman Will Ignont has capitalized on the opportunity for more reps.

“I’m not sure if it will be in 2017,” Shoop said. “But I think Tennessee football fans have a pretty good player for the future.”

Tennessee’s linebacker Will Ignont (23) during Tennessee fall football practice at Anderson Training Facility in Knoxville, Tennessee on Tuesday, August 1, 2017. (Photo: Calvin Mattheis, Knoxville News Sentinel)

Ignont, a four-star recruit, twice made Class 7A first-team all-state as a hard-hitting linebacker at Buckhorn High School in Huntsville, Ala. But he also has impressed his UT teammates with his knowledge of the game.

“Will’s a lot, I mean, head and shoulders above any other linebacker that has come in here,” Jumper told 247Sports. “I think he just recognizes the game really well.”

MORE BREAKING DOWN THE VOLS

► Defensive line has potential, needs results

Quote: Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen on the challenge his group will face against Georgia Tech: “Your eyes have to be right, your hands have to be right, and your technique and alignment have to be spot on. There’s no margin for error.”

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or john.adams@knoxnews.com. Follow him at: Twitter.com/johnadamskns.

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