They certainly don’t look like freshmen.
McKenzie rose to become the No. 1 overall recruit in the country in the 2014 class while he dominated opponents in the trenches as the best high school defensive tackle in all of football. Shy Tuttle was a Scout four-star who racked up 315 tackles and 35 sacks in his illustrious high school career.
But before either one has completed a full year in college, they’ll be asked to transform Tennessee’s interior defensive line into a dangerous entity, one that mirrors the edge with potential All-Americans Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett in intensity, power and effectiveness.
“It starts first and foremost with the defensive front. I don’t think there’s any secret we’re going to have to rely on some true freshmen at the defensive tackle position,” Butch Jones said at SEC Media Days Tuesday. “As we know in this league, this is an unforgiving league, so they’re going to have grow up in a hurry. I thought Shy (Tuttle) really benefited from over 500 and some-odd reps.”
Tuttle’s choice to enroll early paid off almost immediately. As injuries on the defensive front piled up and guys like Danny O’Brien missed spring practice, Tuttle racked up experience and repetitions like they were high school awards.
“He’s matured a lot, just understanding his responsibility and understanding his job. He’s a real talented guy,” fellow defensive lineman Curt Maggitt said. “He’ll help us out a lot. (He’s got) a real thick body, real strong. He can run as well, so … he’s had a lot of snaps from this spring. He’s going to help a lot.”
It’s not every day the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Maggitt calls someone else big, But when it comes to McKenzie, the son of former Tennesee linebacker and current Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, the rising senior sounds like he’s speaking more about an NFL talent than a guy who just graduated high school.
“I know Kahlil will be able to help us as well. He’s a real strong guy. He’s just got crazy big legs, They’re huge” Maggitt said. “What I see from him is a guy who comes from a great background, a football grounded family, so he understands football and I don’t see him make too many jokes when we’re in practice or working out. Any time he’s got questions he’s not scared to ask.”
Neither one of the two freshmen were at SEC Media Days, where upperclassmen who have been in the system and know how to handle the questions, cameras and flashbulbs abound. But both McKenzie and Tuttle were still a huge topic of discussion amongst the Tennessee players in attendance as the Vols look to transform their defensive line into one of the most dominant forces in college football.
They don’t look or play like your typical freshmen. And that’s fantastic news for Tennessee.
“Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie are very, very talented players, but they’re unproven,” Jones said. “They’re going to be going up against juniors and seniors in this conference. But they’re very, very talented, and they’ve been mentored … So it’s going to be how those two individuals come along, and quite simply, it’s going to dictate a lot of our success on defense."
Jones discusses Vols at SECMD