The number 22 play in our countdown to determine the best plays of Tennessee’s 2015 season is Darrin Kirkland Jr.’s interception versus Kentucky.
The Vols’ freshman class of 2015 looks to be one that will be special. Many rookies saw early playing time, and a few even made their way into the starting lineup. Right tackle Chance Hall and right guard Jack Jones helped save the Vols season when injuries struck the offensive line, while Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie flashed stardom at the defensive tackle spot. Others, such as Preston Williams and Kyle Phillips had their start delayed by injuries, but flashed potential.
With that being said, it would be hard to make a case that any freshman had a bigger impact in 2015 than middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. The true freshman started 10 games and finished fourth on the team with 66 tackles. Kirkland took a little while to get going, but once he made his way into the starting lineup it was obvious that the Vols had a future star. Kirkland, quite simply, has the elite athleticism the Vols have not had at the middle linebacker spot in quite a while. Going into the season, the middle linebacker spot was the biggest weakness on the defense, but Kirkland turned it into a strength.
Perhaps Kirkland’s best play of the season came against Kentucky. The Vols had gone into halftime up 24-14, and Jalen Hurd had just scored a touchdown to open up the third quarter. The Wildcats were sensing the game slipping away and were looking for a spark.
The Vols had just scored a touchdown on a screen pass, so Kentucky thought they’d try a similar play.
Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek called for a coverage we have covered before: Cover 1 Green Dog. Here’s a recap of the coverage from the #33 article in our series, a LaDarrell McNeil interception.
On McNeil’s interception, the Vols were in a coverage called Cover 1 Green Dog. Let’s break this down one piece at a time. First, Cover 1.
Cover 1 is simply man coverage with a deep free safety in zone. In this case, McNeil is playing the deep free safety position. His job is to cover the deep middle third, read the quarterback’s eyes, and help defend the deepest route.
The Vols’ other defensive backs (corners Cam Sutton and Justin Martin, nickel Micah Abernathy, and strong safety Todd Kelly Jr.) are each responsible for a receiver in straight man coverage.
This brings us to the “Green Dog” part of the coverage. Green Dog is simply a check that tells the linebacker responsible for the running back to blitz if the back stays in to block. The linebacker will check to see if the back is running a route or blocking. If he is releasing downfield, the linebacker must cover him in man coverage. If he stays in to block, then the linebacker will blitz.
The Vols combine the Green Dog concept with a “Fiddle” concept. Fiddle is a combo coverage between two defenders and one receiver. Here, the Vols two linebackers, Colton Jumper and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, are playing a Fiddle concept on the back. If he releases left, Jumper will cover him, and if he releases right, Reeves-Maybin will cover him. Whichever linebacker is not covering the back will blitz. If the back stays in to block, both linebackers blitz.
On the play against Kentucky, Kirkland was playing beside Reeves-Maybin as the middle linebacker. Since the Wildcats’ back faked a block, both linebackers blitzed.
The deception on Kentucky’s part actually worked against them. Had the back not faked a block before releasing for the screen, Kirkland likely wouldn’t have been in position to intercept the pass. Instead, Kirkland’s blitz put him right in the quarterback’s throwing lane. Once he recognized the screen pass, all he had to do was step in front of the back and catch the ball.
One play later, Hurd was celebrating another touchdown and the rout was on. Through Kirkland’s interception, the Vols had delivered the knockout punch to the Wildcats.
You can read previous installments of this series by clicking below: