A few months ago the sophomore defensive tackle was preparing to lift on the squat bar at the Anderson Training Facility. The more weight he added to the bar, the more attention he got from his teammates. When the weight total hit 710 pounds … well, things got a little noisy.
“All of the guys are going crazy,” he recalled. “Everybody in the weight room’s going crazy.”
Everybody was going crazy except for Vickers, who had just one thought in mind as he calmly stepped forward and slipped his shoulders under the bar:
“Don’t collapse,” he recalled with a grin.
He didn’t. Incredibly, he hoisted the weight, drawing cheers from his teammates. Proving it was no fluke, he has subsequently duplicated the feat.
“The weight looks intimidating,” he said, “but I just get under it and attack it.”
Teammates were impressed, especially guard Jashon Robertson.
“It was freakish,” Robertson said. “I’d never seen somebody in real life do something like that. That was tremendous … just a great accomplishment.”
Robertson is no pushover himself, leading the team with 33 repetitions of 225 pounds in the bench press. Based on their practice battles, he says Vickers has undergone a major transformation this spring by learning to harness his remarkable strength.
“He’s a changed player,” Robertson said. “He’s a real strong guy, and I think he’s been doing a tremendous job this spring, especially with me. I feel like me and him have definitely gotten each other better this spring. I’ve enjoyed competing with Vick.”
Vickers squatted 460 pounds as a high school player back in Havelock, North Carolina, so he’s always been strong. Now he's even stronger. He and cornerback Malik Foreman shared the John Stucky spring award for weight-room progress. Now Vickers is developing the tools to fully exploit his power.
“Kendal has done a great job this spring with his leverage and his pad level,” Vol defensive coordinator John Jancek told InsideTennessee. “This offseason he really got stronger. He really looks good out there. This is the best he’s played yet. A couple of plays in Practice 5 or 6 were pretty impressive. I’m proud of him and happy for him because of the pride he’s put forth and the strides he’s made as a defensive lineman.”
After redshirting as a 250-pound defensive end in 2013, Vickers showed up at 265 for preseason camp last August. Switched to tackle, he added another 23 pounds. Even at 288, he’ll be dwarfed by the 330-pound offensive guards he faces on a regular basis. That’s where his strength can be a great equalizer.
“That’s huge,” Jancek said. “Strength is everything, especially on the line of scrimmage.”
Defensive line coach Steve Stripling agrees, noting: “It’s important as long as you utilize it. Leverage is how you utilize strength like that, and he’s right now the best guy we have on the defensive line. He’s consistently playing with a low pad-level, utilizing his great weight-room numbers.”
Vickers notes a difference when using his strength to fight off blocks in practice this spring.
“It helps a lot,” he said. “I’ve just got to make sure I’m driving my legs, make sure I’m utilizing that 710-pound squat.”
In addition to his improved strength and leverage, Vickers has upgraded his “punch” and his short-range quickness.
“His greatest improvement,” Stripling said, “is the use of his hands and his fast-twitch compared to where he was. He's gone from that space-eating type guy to a playmaker. He's using his hands, getting off blocks and those kinds of things, so he's been outstanding."
No one is prouder of Vickers than Tennessee’s head coach, who notes dramatic improvement.
“You can see the speed of the game slowing down for him,” Butch Jones said. “You can really start to see him use his technique. We talk about toughness and technique and leverage. Every player in our program is given a leverage grade after every single practice, and you can see the improvements are marked and very visible each and every practice. I have been very pleased with him. He’s done a great job."
Simply put, Kendal Vickers was one of the breakout players of spring practice. After watching him record an eight-yard sack in the Orange & White game, Jones noted that Vickers had "a very, very good spring." Though flattered, the player hasn’t let success go to his head.
“I still talk to my high school coaches to this day,” he said. “My parents came down for Family Day. They're supporting me. I have family here in Knoxville supporting me. I'm just a dude from Havelock trying to make it out."
Vickers details progress