No FBS program in the nation has played more true freshmen than Tennessee this season.
That should show fans of the Volunteers two things: 1. Butch Jones is going to play the best player regardless of age. 2. Nearly two dozen teenagers are getting valuable experience for the future against arguably the country’s toughest schedule.
A newcomer to the 2015 roster that could find himself nudging his way into the starting lineup is verbal commitment defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie.
Trench warfare in the Southeastern Conference isn’t for everyone, especially true freshmen, but McKenzie isn’t any ordinary prospect. The 6-foot-3, 330-pounder out of Concord, California, ranks by Scout as a five-star prospect.
“Of course you see that freshmen are needed and they are playing and asked to fill roles already,” the nation’s best prep football player told InsideTennessee. “You can definitely tell if you come in as a freshman, you'll be given every opportunity to start and play early and all that kind of stuff. That's really cool, of course, you have to still come in and put your nose down, work and perfect your craft so you'll be ready to play once the season ends."
As an unofficial visitor to see Tennessee host Florida in front of a sellout crowd at Neyland Stadium earlier this month, McKenzie got an in-person look at defensive line coach Steve Stripling’s unit.
"That's what I try and do is most of the time make sure I do my job, but I like being the impact player, making sure I make plays when my team needs me to make a play."
“I think the defensive line is definitely playing a lot better than people expected them to,” said McKenzie, who admits watching every game the current Vols play. “I think they're playing really well. There's definitely a lot of room for improvement like everything, but I think all of those guys are playing really well. As the season goes on, they'll really start to get after the quarterback more, really be able to make some real stops and make some real impact plays. That's what I try and do is most of the time make sure I do my job, but I like being the impact player, making sure I make plays when my team needs me to make a play.”
While the Florida game was certainly not the first McKenzie had seen in person at Neyland Stadium, but it was his first as committed Volunteer.
“I think being able to see a game as a recruit is fine,” he said, “but I think when you are committed to his school is definitely a different sensation because even just watching the games knowing that I'm committed to a school…you have a different level of intrigue and passion for the game."
Joining McKenzie on his most recent trip from the Golden State to the Volunteer State (spent time with an aunt and grandparents near Knoxville, too) were his parents and brother Jalen McKenzie , who is turning into a college prospect himself as an offensive tackle in the 2017 signing class.
After their time at Clayton Valley School is up, the brothers could find themselves teamed up again…if Kahlil has anything to say about it.
“I'm going to make sure I try to get him to,” Kahlil said of recruiting Jalen. “That's my goal. I don't think he has much of a choice. If he doesn't, then I'm a terrible recruiter.”
Expectations are for McKenzie to take his official visit to Tennessee in January and enroll next summer.