Kennedy, Kirkland Look to Step Up as Vols Move to Full Pads

Brandon Kennedy – Vols OL / Credit: UT Athletics

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Two players expected to make an impact this fall for the Tennessee football team did not compete in any games for the Vols in 2017.

Redshirt juniors Brandon Kennedy and Darrin Kirkland, Jr. were both competing in the Orange and White on Wednesday afternoon, however, on the indoor fields at the Anderson Training Center after inclement weather forced Tennessee’s first full pads practice inside – a workout that will routinely test a team’s toughness.

“We had our first day in pads yesterday, lots of good, lots of bad,” head coach Jeremy Pruitt said on Thursday following a morning walk-through session. “Really inconsistent. Lots of lessons to be learned. We’ve got some guys that play with toughness, but they don’t do it all the time. So, they show that they can do it, but if you’re going to be a great player or have a great team, the number one, core ingredient is; you better have a tough football team.”

Kennedy and Kirkland are both veterans who will be counted on for their experience in making toughness a consistent trait of the Vols.

Kennedy, an offensive lineman, joined UT this summer as a graduate transfer following three years and two national championships at Alabama.

“Brandon is a really good competitor and he strains and he knows how to strain and he knows how to do it every play,” Pruitt said. “A guy like him, I think he’s quickly earned the respect of his teammates by the way he practices, by the way he goes about his business and I think everybody in our program is excited that he’s here.”

Kirkland, Jr., a linebacker, also earned his degree this summer and could’ve transferred, but opted to stay with the Volunteers for the next two years to help lead Pruitt’s defense. Kirkland missed last season with a knee injury, but he was an All-SEC Freshman selection in 2015.

“First of all, he’s a smart guy,” Pruitt said about Kirkland. “He has a really good understanding of the defense. That says a lot about him because he didn’t take hardly any reps in the spring. He picks things up fast, and I think the guy’s instinctive, I think he shows some toughness and he’s got quickness. Every day that he’s out there I see him improving and gaining confidence with himself and what he can get done.”

Kirkland called the Tennessee fans “the best in the universe” and said his teammates picked him up if he was ever down during his injury rehabilitation.

“My teammates really helped me a lot, Kirkland said. “So I’m happy to be there for them now.”

A quick learner, Kirkland is excited to be a key member of Pruitt’s defense, which will rely on versatility and feature multiple looks.

It gives us a lot of different looks and different bases,” Kirkland said. “It shows guys a lot of attributes that they can use in the game, so I’m just excited to move forward with it.”

Kennedy is also excited to be a leader on the Vols’ offense. He is taking some of what he learned as a part of Alabama’s national championship teams in 2015 and 2017 and applying it on Rocky Top.

“I’m just trying to earn my teammates respect, daily,” Kennedy said. “I also want to push them because I’m coming from a championship team. So, I want to bring that leadership here.”

Pruitt Stresses Competition in Special Teams 
The Vols lost school-record holding punter Trevor Daniel to the NFL after last fall and will be looking to replace him with either true freshman Paxton Brooks or redshirt freshman Joe Doyle.

Pruitt said there is an open competition for special teams jobs on Thursday.

“When you’re putting in special teams, you take a couple of teams each day that you work on,” he said.  “Being five days into practice, you know it’s probably not a good time to assess what these guys can or can’t do. We still have open competition; you’ll probably see a little more in scrimmage situations.”

Redshirt junior long-snapper Riley Lovingood has a close look at the special teams competition and he is impressed with the work ethic of the punters.

“The way Joe Doyle and Paxton Brooks are coming out each day, you can tell they are really taking their craft seriously,” Lovingood said. “They are watching film and breaking down their punts because they know the big shoes they have to fill. I’m really excited to see them both out there competing for it every day. It will be fun to watch.”

Rachel Baribeau One of Many Speakers for the Vols
On Monday, renown speaker Rachel Baribeau visited with Vols to talk about “changing the narrative,” including how to have a purpose, platform and passion. Dr. Tommy Shavers and Dr. Kevin Elko also talked to the Vols earlier this week, while VFLs Chris Walker and Jamal Lewis will speak to the squad in the coming days. Pruitt has been bringing in speakers to talk to the Vols about off-the-field subjects since he arrived.

“Since I’ve been here, once a month we’ve met with our team whether its drug, alcohol or how to treat the opposite sex,” he said. “During the summertime, they took a wellness class and met once a week, so everyone was involved in it. That’s important to us. It’s important to our society…Every night we bring in speakers who talk about being a leader, about being a good teammate, something, every night during fall camp. (Rachel) did a really good job the other day and we’ve had some really great speakers this fall camp.”

TRANSCRIPTIONS & QUOTES 

Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt

Coach Pruitt’s Opening Statement:

“We had our first day in pads yesterday, lots of good, lots of bad. Really inconsistent. Lots of lessons to be learned. We’ve got some guys that play with toughness, but they don’t do it all the time. So, they show that they can do it, but if you’re going to be a great player or have a great team, the number one, core ingredient is; you better have a tough football team. We’ve got some guys that can do it, not all of them are doing it all of the time. We’ve got some young players that flash some ability. I told them last night, you showed me that you can do it one time, now you’re in trouble because we know that you can do it, and now our expectation is for you to do it all of the time. There was a lot of juice which was a good thing. I think our guys are working really hard to be the best that they can possibly be, but this is what happens when it comes to fall camp; you get in to day 5,6,7, and you’re either going to get better or get worse every day and we’ve got to focus to improve our fundamentals, we’ve got to improve ball security, we’ve got to sustain blocks, we’ve got to get off blockers, we’ve got to throw the ball to the right places, we’ve got to throw it on time, we’ve got to finish plays as a runner and ball carrier and we’ve got to play with effort and toughness so we can secure and get some turnovers and keep guys from creating big plays.”

On having only a couple seniors on offense and if that excites him or concerns him:

“No, that’s a really good thing. When you have youth, the longer you’ve played football, the more wisdom you get. You learn how to play. You probably get a little callused up from the game. We’ve got a lot of young guys that are inexperienced and every day they’re improving, and they’re hungry to do that, but they’ve got a lot to learn.”

On Brandon Kennedy and his transition to Tennessee:

“Brandon is a really good competitor and he strains and he knows how to strain and he knows how to do it every play. A guy like him, I think he’s quickly earned the respect of his teammates by the way he practices, by the way he goes about his business and I think everybody in our program is excited that he’s here.”

On Darren Kirkland and how he’s looking after putting pads on:

“First of all, he’s a smart guy. He has a really good understanding of the defense. That says a lot about him because he didn’t take hardly any reps in the spring. He picks things up fast, and I think the guy’s instinctive, I think he shows some toughness and he’s got quickness. Every day that he’s out there I see him improving and gaining confidence with himself and what he can get done.”

On his defense and how much was installed in the spring and how will be installed before West Virginia:

“We put our defense in concepts, so after 5 practices, we’ve got every concept that we would play this fall. We have things that we add as we go over the next few days, but today is a review day so, it’ll be interesting to see who can bring back what they learned the first couple of days. That’s kind of how we teach it, so from here on out, there’s nothing much new. They already know the concept, it just may be a different way to apply something.”

On Jauan (Jennings) and Chance Hall and how he would assess their progress, and how close they are to being full-go:

“I think we’re just going to stick to the plan, we know what we want. Obviously, they’re taking a few more reps every day, and both guys are doing really well. They’re smart guys and they can learn in the meeting room, they can learn from somebody else’s mistakes but both guys have not played football in a long time. Whether its running routes, catching the ball, ball security, pass setting on the offensive line. Just the daily grind, they’ve got to get back used to doing it, and that’s why we’re bringing them along slowly.”

On the decision to bring in Racheal Baribeau to speak about how to treat women:

“Since I’ve been here, once a month we’ve met with our team whether its drug, alcohol or how to treat the opposite sex. During the summertime, they took a wellness class and met once a week, so everyone was involved in it. That’s important to us. It’s important to our society. She spoke at a place I was at before and I think she does a really good job. Every night we bring in speakers who talk about being a leader, about being a good teammate, something, every night during fall camp. She did a really good job the other day and we’ve had some really great speakers this fall camp.”

On returning players and how they are handling the increase in competition brought in with the new guys:

“I think competition is going to make everybody better. If you want to have a good football team, you want to embrace guys that are going to help you and I think our guys have done that, and I think our guys want to have a good football team. I think it’s important that guys are competing for jobs, and they have relationships where they can call on each other. I think that’s part of being a team. I look back when I played, I wanted to play as bad as anybody. I didn’t play a whole lot, but that didn’t keep me from trying to help the people that players the same position that I played, because I wanted the team to win. That’s the type of players we’re looking for, that’s the culture we’re looking for, and I think we’re headed in that direction.”

On how much of a priority it is to implement the physical side of the game now that the team is in full pads: 

Every play somebody’s got to block, somebody’s got to have block protection. Whether it’s the line of scrimmage or its out on the perimeter, somebody’s got the ball they have to secure the ball and obviously the defense is trying to take it away from them.

Every play ends with either a touchdown or a tackle, so all the fundamentals and doing it the right way, to me that’s why we do as many reps as we do. We give as many guys opportunities; we finish every play. So, I think the more you do it, the better you’re going to get at it.

On whether or not the team is on track to being a more physical team:

I think one day is probably not a good way to assess it. I think anybody can do it for one day, but the great teams learn to do it all the time – they can do it in October and November. I think probably if you talk about, ‘are we bigger, are we stronger?’ Yeah, absolutely. Our guys in the weight room have done a fantastic job, they’ve worked really hard. Do we have more discipline? Yes, we do. Do we have more mental toughness? From the spring, absolutely. I think a lot of that has to do with an infusion of guys who didn’t participate in Spring. I think things are contagious. If the expectations (are) ‘this is how we are going to do it,’ and the people in the room demand it, either they do it, or they probably get replaced. I think we got some guys that are probably trying to do it the right way. It’s really only one day in pads, so we’ll see in November.

On if a certain specialist has stood out a week into fall camp:

When you’re putting in special teams, you take a couple of teams each day that you work on. Being five days into practice, you know it’s probably not a good time to assess what these guys can or can’t do. We still have open competition; you’ll probably see a little more in scrimmage situations.

On the wide receiver group as a whole and where they are now versus where they need to be:

One thing that we’re doing is we’re doing a lot of individual drills versus the defensive backs. Lots of one-on-ones. If you can play one-on-one on the defensive side, you don’t have any limitations. If you can’t, then you’re going to have limitations on your defense. If you look at the offensive side, if you can’t get away from people that are going to play one-on-one on you, then you’re going to struggle offensively. We’ve tried to create a lot of competition. Both groups need to really improve at that, and I think they have to an extent, but we need to take that to another level.

On whether or not the team has a defined approach to prevent potential injuries during practices and the protocol on head injuries:

This is a physical game. Probably, if you look, if people are on the ground, there is an opportunity for people to get hurt. You’ve got to coach guys, number one, to learn how to strain, learn how to play the game – but play it under control. Know that you’re playing against your teammates in practice. You’ve got to be competitive, and it’s a fine line, everybody wants to play with an edge. You’ve got to stay off the ground, you got to stay under control and don’t take cheap shots at people that aren’t looking. You take care of your teammates, I think our guys are learning that. We’re much better than when we first got here, so we’ve got to continue to improve on that, and probably all of the above – the straining, the finishing, the staying off the ground, just all the little things (about) knowing how to practice.

On how the quarterback competition sits right now versus when camp started:

Probably like any other position, there’s lots of competition at that position. Some days some guys do better than they did the day before. There’s lots of inconsistencies, we’ve got to find guys that (are) going to be consistent, that are going to take care of the football, that are going to make the guys around them better. These guys are all getting opportunities, we’re taking it all in and we’ll kind of assess in a couple of days after we scrimmage.

On whether he is impressed or surprised with Alontae Taylor’s progression as a freshman and his position change:

He’s learning how to play defensive back and he’s got a long way to go. He does have some abilities – he’s got length, he has good ball skills. I think he wants to be good. But there’s other guys out there that are competing with him every day. He knows he’s got to continue to learn and do the little things, the details that will give him a chance to have success. So that’s a good thing that we’ve got competition and that everybody in that group knows it.

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Redshirt Junior Offensive Lineman Brandon Kennedy

On the the transition to UT:

“I’m just trying to earn my teammates respect, daily. I also want to push them because I’m coming from a championship team. So, I want to bring that leadership here.”

On his reasons for coming to Tennessee:

“First off, my degree, sports psychology is a big thing for me. I also knew it was a great opportunity to come here and play football.”

On his thoughts on the offensive line unit:

“I feel like we are all pretty good. I’m trying to help the younger guys and some of the older guys are helping me learn plays.”

On his familiarity with the scheme and calls:

“I was very familiar with the calls. Alabama helped me develop me into what I am now. Offense is offense and they are basically all the same concepts.”

On Offensive Line Coach Will Friend:

“He is a great coach and a great teacher. He makes sure we understand in terms of teaching technique and other things.”

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Redshirt junior Outside Linebacker Darrell Taylor

On the adjustment to outside linebacker:

“I think it’s been great. Working with Coach Rumph and Coach Pruitt, I think it’s been great making that transition from defensive end to outside linebacker.”

On his growth off the field since last season:

“I think I’ve grown a lot. I’m trying to be more of a leader this year than I was last year and just trying to take the right steps there and help the team achieve a goal.”

On the return of Darrin Kirkland Jr.:

“I think it makes a big difference, because he’s an electric player. He’s plays with a spunk and I love it.”

On adjusting to the new defensive system:

“In the spring it was hard, but I think we have the hang of it now and the coaches are helping us as much as they can. We’ve done a lot of film study and we’ve spent a lot of time in our books.”

On adjusting to Coach Rumph and his philosophy:

“I think we adjusted pretty well because he came in and told us what we needed to do, and everything he needed us to do in the defense, what we needed to bring to the table. So I think we adjusted pretty well to it.”

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Redshirt Junior Long Snapper Riley Lovingood

On what he sees from the team so far during fall camp:

“I see a team that is hungry and coming out with an edge. We are hard nosed, tough and looking to keep each other accountable. It’s a good look right now.”

On what he sees from the competition at punter:

“Finding a punter like Trevor Daniel is not easy at all, and he has his first NFL game tonight against Dustin Colquitt from the Chiefs. Two former VFL punters there. The way Joe Doyle and Paxton Brooks are coming out each day, you can tell they are really taking their craft seriously. They are watching film and breaking down their punts because they know the big shoes they have to fill. I’m really excited to see them both out there competing for it every day. It will be fun to watch.”

On Pruitt bringing up competition:

“He brings it up every day, every meeting and every practice. He loves competition because competition at each position makes the whole team better. If you have guys competing four or five deep at every position, then you will have the best guys starting on Saturdays, and that is what we want as a team.”

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Senior Defensive Back Micah Abernathy

On the difference of the new defense on the back end for them:

“We are learning every day and trying to get better. When we get out on the field, we are doing as much as we can to try and be more versatile at every position that we have. Learning a new defense is going to be difficult in some areas. Some people will pick it up faster than others, but we are just trying to learn more and more every day.”

On having Todd Kelly Jr. back on the field:

“It’s good to have him back. He’s an older guy who has seen a lot of football. He’s seen more than me. I can take a lot of things from him. It’s nice to have him out there.”

On his relationship with Pruitt:

“I was actually recruited by Coach Pruitt, so it was pretty exciting when he was hired. He also coaches defensive backs, so that was a plus. He was a genuine guy during the recruiting process. He was always one of my favorite coaches because of that.”

On adjusting to the new staff and their personalities:

“Every coach has their own personality, whether its Coach Pruitt, Coach Kelly or Coach Fair. They are all going to come at you from different ways. You just have to take things from what they are saying and apply that.”

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Redshirt Junior Linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr.

On his decision in the spring to return to Tennessee:
“The past is the past and, you know, I’m really comfortable with this university and I love this university, [it has] the best fans in the universe. I’ve graduated from here and I had fulfilled that obligation to get my degree, so that decision process was a family one, but I’m looking forward to moving forward with Coach Pruitt, this defense, this team, and I’m excited to be here.”

On the process of getting back to where he is now after missing last year with a serious injury:
“It’s difficult. It takes a lot of mental focus. My teammates really helped me a lot, so I’m happy to be there for them now.”

On what he likes about Coach Pruitt’s defense:
“It’s very multiple. It gives us a lot of different looks and different bases. It shows guys a lot of attributes that they can use in the game, so I’m just excited to move forward with it.”

On how he’s been able to pick up the defense so well despite missing spring practices:
“Well in the spring I still attended all the meetings. I’m kind of a quick study, so everything that we honed in on through the summer I just tried to stay focused with that, understanding my place in the defense and moving forward like that.”

 

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