Kirkland tweeted May 24 that he would finish his college career elsewhere as a graduate transfer. Less than a week later, Volunteers coach Jeremy Pruitt said Kirkland had changed his mind and was staying at Tennessee.
"This is a great university, I love it," Kirkland said Thursday during his first media session since that tweet. "The fans are the best in the country; I couldn't dispute that at all. Really being around my teammates made this the easy decision."
Kirkland didn't elaborate on why he had considered transferring in the first place. He did indicate that as a graduate, he wanted to explore the possibility of playing elsewhere this fall without sitting out a year.
"I got my degree from this university in three years, so I just had some options," said Kirkland, who is in graduate school this fall after earning his recreation and sports management degree in May. "It was a decision that wasn't [made] lightly or emotional."
Whatever the reason for Kirkland's initial uncertainty about returning to Tennessee, he's back in Knoxville now and eager to bounce back from a lost season.
Kirkland missed the entire 2017 season with a knee injury as Tennessee went 4-8 to set a school record for losses. The Vols went winless in Southeastern Conference play for the first time since the league started football competition in 1933.
Because he didn't play last year, Kirkland is now a redshirt junior with two seasons of eligibility remaining.
Kirkland said he's back at full strength and wants to help Pruitt rebuild this program. Kirkland said he appreciated the conversations he had with Pruitt while trying to decide whether to return to Tennessee.
"It wasn't a sales pitch," Kirkland said. "He was just very supportive of whatever decision [I made], because he always wants the best for me, he wants the best for any player on this team. I was happy with that, that he just supported my decision."
Pruitt is impressed with how fast Kirkland has caught on to the defense, particularly since the knee injury had caused him to miss most of spring practice.
"First of all, he's a smart guy," Pruitt said. "He has a really good understanding of the defense. That says a lot about him because he didn't take hardly any reps this spring, so he picks things up fast. I think the guy's instinctive. I think he shows some toughness. He's got quickness. Every day he's out there, I see him improving and gaining confidence with himself."
Tennessee would love to see Kirkland stay healthy and recapture the form he showed early in his career before injuries started hampering him.
Kirkland made 10 starts as a freshman and was the fourth-leading tackler for a team that went 9-4. An ankle injury limited him to eight games in 2016, then he got hurt in fall practice last year and didn't play at all.
Tennessee already returns linebackers Daniel Bituli and Quart'e Sapp, who combined for 168 tackles. If Kirkland avoids injuries and plays the entire season, the linebacker position could emerge as one of Tennessee's biggest strengths.
"I think it makes a big difference," outside linebacker Darrell Taylor said. "He's an electric player. He plays with a spunk, and I love it."
Kirkland's eager to become a difference-maker again. It just took him some time to decide where he wanted to do that.
Now that he has made that choice, Kirkland isn't looking back.
"Really, I just focused on what was the most important thing, which was the team," Kirkland said. "No individual's bigger than the team. I just tried to stay focused on the goal at hand, and that's winning a championship here, for sure."