KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — No. 15 Tennessee will be missing two defensive starters for Saturday’s game against Ohio with linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. and end LaTroy Lewis out with injured ankles.
Both suffered the injuries in Tennessee’s 45-24 victory over Virginia Tech last week.
Their absences will leave Tennessee’s defense relying on reserves to make big contributions Saturday against Ohio (1-1), which is coming off a 37-21 victory at Kansas.
“It’s like life,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “When you get an opportunity, go make the most of it.”
When Kirkland and Lewis could return remains uncertain.
Jones said it will be a “week-to-week projection” to see how soon Kirkland could return after the Ohio game.
At his Monday press conference, Jones said Lewis would “probably be out for a couple of weeks.” While speaking to the Knoxville Quarterback Club later Monday, Jones said he anticipates Lewis “being out at least two to three weeks.”
Tennessee (2-0) opens Southeastern Conference competition Sept. 24 by hosting No. 23 Florida.
Jones also said kickoff returner and backup safety Evan Berry’s status for this week is uncertain due to a hamstring injury and that offensive tackle Chance Hall would miss two more weeks “at best” after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery last month.
Berry was the nation’s leading kickoff returner last season and has scored on three career kickoff returns and one interception return. Hall, who started Tennessee’s final seven games at right tackle last fall, hasn’t played yet this season.
Kirkland has a team-high 16 tackles through Tennessee’s first two games. Lewis is tied for fifth on the team with 10 tackles.
The loss of Kirkland may be more concerning than the absence of Lewis, if only because Tennessee is deeper at defensive end than at linebacker.
Although he has been behind Lewis on the depth chart through the first two games of this season, senior end Corey Vereen made a combined 18 starts in the 2014 and 2015 seasons and recorded 9 ½ tackles for loss last year. Vereen has six tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery this season.
Lewis’ injury also could create more playing time for reserves Jonathan Kongbo, Kyle Phillips and Darrell Taylor.
“We just feel like it’s time for guys to step up and do what they need to do, whether that be extra film work or extra things in the weight room, just making sure they’re ready to go,” Vereen said. “There shouldn’t be a drop-off of any sort when other guys get in.”
Tennessee has various options on how it might replace Kirkland.
Colton Jumper, a former walk-on, has been backing up Kirkland at Mike linebacker. Other options are Cortez McDowell and Quart’e Sapp, who have been backing up Jalen Reeves-Maybin at weak-side linebacker.
McDowell made nine tackles in a season-opening victory over Appalachian State after Reeves-Maybin was ejected in the first quarter.
Jones said the Mike linebacker and weak-side linebacker positions are “pretty much interchangeable” in Tennessee’s defense. That conceivably could allow Tennessee to move Reeves-Maybin to Kirkland’s old spot and have McDowell or Sapp line up at weak-side linebacker.
“We’ll have some individuals gain some valuable repetitions, and whoever has the best week of practice will play that spot,” Jones said.
Online: AP College Football website www.collegefootball.ap.org