Offensive lineman Brett Kendrick might have been offended last fall when Tennessee head coach Butch Jones snidely referred to him as “a marshmallow … soft and white” except for one thing: The characterization was accurate. He lacked toughness.
“That’s been a big thing — not only mentally but physically, too,” Kendrick told InsideTennessee. “That’s always been a knock on me. You’ve got to tune out some of the stuff the coaches say and take the positives from that. I’ve been trying to build my mental toughness and my physical toughness.”
A marshmallow no more, Kendrick is still white but he no longer is soft. He exhibited so much grit in spring practice that he is Tennessee’s No. 1 right tackle heading into preseason camp.
“His step-up on the field is ridiculous,” first-team left tackle and fellow Knoxvillian Kyler Kerbyson said. “It really does astound me how much different he is — how good his set-up is, how good his hands are, how good his footwork is. It really shows that he works hard and he wants it.”
Kendrick admits that he was unprepared for trench warfare at the Southeastern Conference level last September, even after redshirting as a true freshman in 2013.
“When you get to college it’s a different game,” he said. “There’s bigger people who can move a lot better than what I was playing against in high school.”
No doubt. The competition Kendrick faced at Tennessee is several notches above what he encountered while leading Christian Academy of Knoxville to TSSAA Class 3A state titles in 2011 and 2012. After struggling to adjust in 2013 and 2014 Kendrick appears on track for 2015.
“Brett’s work has paid off,” offensive line coach Don Mahoney told IT. “His body has matured, and he’s been steady. His style of play has improved. His goal is to finish blocks more, and he’s taken strides with that. He’s been very consistent with his pass sets, his understanding of the game, and the speed at which he’s playing is a lot faster. He’s doing some things that make me really excited about his play.”
Tennessee’s first-year offensive coordinator also thought Kendrick made significant strides during the spring.
“He continued to get better every day,” Mike DeBord said. “I like how he improved through the padded practices. Like all of ‘em, he’s got to continue to improve and play with better leverage, but I like where he’s at.”
Kendrick returns the compliment, noting that the new coordinator has accelerated the blocking front’s growth by helping Mahoney oversee a dozen O-linemen.
“Having Coach DeBo around, an offensive line guy that really pays attention to everything we’re doing in the offensive line, has really helped,” Kendrick said. “Having an extra set of eyes on me and the rest of us — reminding us about keeping your head down, pad level, second step — helps. The O-line is such a fragile position. You’ve got to get that first and second step down just perfect, so having an extra set of eyes really helped us.”
Although the 6-foot-6, 316-pound sophomore projects to start at right tackle, he knows first-team jobs can be fleeting. When Jacob Gilliam tore an ACL in the Vols’ 2014 opener, Kendrick replaced him in the starting lineup for Game 2 against Arkansas State … only to be benched after a lackluster performance.
“Brett went in there and had to come back out because Coach Mo (Mahoney) wasn’t very happy with his play,” Kerbyson recalled. “But Brett’s mentality has totally changed since then.”
Recalling the hasty demotion as “rock bottom,” Kendrick held a brief pity party, then clawed his way back into the starting lineup for Game 8 against Alabama. Starting against the Tide in front of 102,000 fans at Shields-Watkins Field is as good as it gets for a Knoxville native.
“That was special — being a hometown kid getting to start against Alabama in Neyland Stadium,” Kendrick conceded.
Fortunately for the Vols, he was a different player against Bama than he had been against Arkansas State two months earlier.
“I thought I was kind of laid-back in the Arkansas State game,” he said. “I felt like I was a lot more physical in the Alabama game. Seeing the Arkansas State film motivated me to start working harder in practice and finishing off plays.”
|Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney says his confidence and trust in Kendrick continues to grow.|
With Marcus Jackson back from injury, Kendrick returned to a reserve role following the Bama game. Still, his performance against the Tide was encouraging.
“I got to start and play all game against Alabama, so that’s when I started to build my confidence back,” he recalled. “By the end of the year I’d gained a lot of confidence.”
Kendrick played so well against the Tide, in fact, that some observers speculated that he deserved to play more in November than he did. Kendrick dismisses such talk.
“I’m my own worst critic, so I blame everything on me,” he said. “I know I have to get better.”
Mission accomplished. Kendrick was one of Tennessee’s most improved players in spring practice – progressing physically, as well as mentally.
“He made up in his mind and said ‘I'm going to change my body and really come out and help the O-line this year,’” first-team center Mack Crowder said. “I have to give all the credit to him. That's his whole new mindset. He's really changing."
With Gilliam out of eligibility, Kendrick leads the battle for the vacant right-tackle job. Junior Dontavius Blair poses a threat, however, along with mid-term enrollee Jack Jones and incoming freshman Drew Richmond.
“This is a huge opportunity for me,” Kendrick said, “but there are a lot of tackles out there."
There would be one more tackle “out there” except that Coleman Thomas, who started five times at right tackle as a true freshman last fall, is working mostly at center these days. That could be an indication of the faith the coaches have in Kendrick to handle the right-tackle job.
“I think that is them saying they have confidence in me,” Kendrick said, “which helps build my confidence.”
He is so confident these days that the “marshmallow” comments from last fall are a faded memory.
“Coach Jones used to make little nicknames for me but it’s all in good fun,” Kendrick said, smiling softly. “I take it as meaning I need to get better, so I’m always trying to work on toughness.”