By Alex Norman
Tennessee athletics have been a source of major controversy, internal strife, and nearly constant underachievement for the past decade. There have been too many coaching changes and administrator changes to count on the UT campus, and the winning formula has yet to be developed.
But the times… they are a changin’…
Ever since Phillip Fulmer took over for the flawed John Currie following the great UT football coaching search debacle of November /December 2017, Tennessee hasn’t been in the news very much for off the field mistakes and that certainly is a good thing.
Yes, there was a hiccup when head football coach Jeremy Pruitt did away with the autograph sessions that traditionally preceded the Orange & White Game. But his trips on the Big Orange Caravan tours eased many of the worries from fans that Pruitt won’t make those connections.
Last week there were two announcements made that showed that Tennessee truly is moving in the right direction, and they involved their two revenue sports, football and men’s basketball.
Let’s start with football. Back on May 24th, Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. announced on twitter that he was going to be a graduate transfer, and would have two years of eligibility remaining to play at another school. It would be a brutal blow for the Vols defense as they start to make the transition from the 4-3 alignment to the 3-4.
Kirkland started ten games as a true freshman in 2015, but missed much of 2016 and all of 2017 due to injury. He missed all of spring practice, but was expected to be ready for the fall camp.
But four days later, Gridiron Now’s John Brice reported that there had been a change of heart, and Kirkland would stay at Tennessee. Over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, Brice reported that Kirkland, his parents, and Pruitt had a meeting.
“I don’t think that Darrin was unhappy in any way,” Pruitt said on Tuesday, May 29th at the SEC spring meetings in Destin. “He just wanted to see if there was any possibility that he might want to further his career, and he decided he wanted to stay at Tennessee. We met and talked, and he’s excited to stay at Tennessee. He wants to finish what he started. Darrin is a smart guy, and he’s been through some tough injuries, and, to me, that’s probably the good thing about the grad transfer rule is when a guy does graduate, if he does want to move on, then he has an opportunity to do that.”
There are spots on defense where depth is a concern, but with the return of Kirkland, the Vols linebacking corps with Daniel Bituli, Quart’e Sapp and Will Ignont also returning could turn into a strength for Tennessee.
Kirkland’s return was one bit of good news for the football program. Tennessee’s men’s basketball team got some even better news last week when forward Admiral Schofield said that he would be returning for his senior season.
He made his future plans known with a twitter posting. “I am very grateful for my recent opportunities to compete and display my talents in front of NBA personnel. I have learned so much through this NBA Draft evaluation process and am looking forward to improving the areas of my game that need it while also improving as a man. With that said, I’m happy to announce that I’ll be returning to Tennessee for my senior season, and I am focused and hungry to once again chase championships with my teammates!”
Schofield averaged 13.9 points and 6.4 rebounds a game last season. He was projected to be picked in the second round in next month’s NBA draft.
“I think what he’s gone through is gonna really help him this year and help his teammates,” said Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes at the SEC spring meetings. “He’s a guy that we look at for leadership, and my dialogue with him after each one of his tryouts or workouts was really good.”
With Schofield back, the Vols return every key piece from the squad that shared the SEC title with Auburn a year ago. Tennessee has been seen in the top five in preseason polls, and one of the highest anticipated seasons since the Bruce Pearl era is on the horizon.
The decisions of Kirkland and Schofield will hopefully benefit both student-athletes this fall and in the years to come. For Tennessee, it is yet another sign that things are turning around. These are two high profiled guys that want to be at UT. They could have left, but they decided to stick around.
The ship isn’t sinking anymore…