After losing starting middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. for the year late in preseason camp, Tennessee will be without another starting linebacker for the rest of the season now, too.
On Monday, Vols coach Butch Jones confirmed a pair of recent VolQuest reports, as weak-side linebacker Cortez McDowell and wideout Jauan Jennings will miss the rest of the season with wrist injuries.
McDowell, a senior, started the first three games of the year at weak-side linebacker and hurt his wrist early in second half of Saturday’s 26-20 loss at Florida.
He had 24 tackles on the season, ranking third on the team.
“Unfortunately, McDowell is out for the year,” Jones said. “It’s pretty much the same type of injury that Jauan had. We’re going to miss him, not only from a defensive standpoint but a special teams standpoint as well.”
With McDowell sidelined, Quart’e Sapp is expected to slide into the starter’s role, while Elliott Berry, who played several 3rd-down snaps against UF, will see time, too.
Sapp, a redshirt sophomore, had seven tackles Saturday in the most extensive playing time of his career.
“Sapp has worked really, really hard to get back from his knee injury from last year,” Jones said. “He’s been waiting for his opportunity. We could see his development and growth start to materialize at the start of training camp. We told him the other day, ‘You’ve waited for this opportunity. Now go make the most of it.’ We’re going to have to rely on him more and more.”
Jones also noted that senior safety Todd Kelly Jr., who didn't start the first two games this year, will be out indefinitely with a knee injury. Kelly didn't make the trip to Florida this weekend and is expected to miss the rest of the season.
“We do not anticipating having Todd Kelly (back),” Jones said.
“Again, he’s undergoing second opinions. Todd has meant so much to our football program and everything that he’s done. I would say that he’s out indefinitely. I don't know a timetable specifically.”
BITULI RETAINS STARTING JOB?
Daniel Bituli made his first-career start at middle linebacker Saturday, but the sophomore didn’t stay on the field long after a few missed assignments. Colton Jumper played the majority of the final three quarters at MLB, but after Florida scored its first offensive touchdown of the season, Bituli replaced Jumper on the final two series.
Moving forward, it appears Tennessee will lean on Bituli at the MIKE, hoping more reps will help him learn the position and defensive calls.
“We’re really excited about his progress. I think he’s progressing. We’re asking a lot of Daniel right now, being involved in really the four core on our special teams. He’s a backup on some and a starter on a lot,” Jones said.
“I think as the season progress, particularly going into this week, you’re going to see Daniel Bituli grow more and more into his position defensively.”
While Bituli racked up 23 tackles as Tennessee’s strong-side linebacker in the win over Georgia Tech, the Nashville native will play solely inside for the foreseeable future. Tennessee could experiment with playing both Bituli and Jumper together down the road, but that's not an option right now.
“We’ve got to grow him into one position first and foremost, just at the MIKE,” Jones said Monday.
“And then as he gets more and more comfortable with calls, then we can move him around a little bit. Daniel is still a young player that’s continuing to learn and we don’t want the mind to tie the feet up, so to speak.
“We just want him focusing on one position and work that every single day. He’s a very, very talented young man. He’s playing good football for us. His role will continue to grow.”
BYRD SET FOR INCREASED ROLE?
Sophomore wideout Tyler Byrd created a stir late Sunday afternoon when he sent out a cryptic message on social media.