Kahlil McKenzie made Saturday a special day for him and his family. In the sub-freezing temperatures inside Memorial Stadium, McKenzie threw Missouri quarterback Drew Lock to the turf for his first sack as a Tennessee Vol with his father, Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, watching in the stands.
After a season of growing pains and natural progression, McKenzie slowly began to play himself into the rotation after coming into the program as a late addition. Defensive line coach Steve Stripling said he plays the linemen who make an impact on the field, and McKenzie has ushered himself into that rotation.
"That's a real good example," Stripling said. "Kahlil's been in that 10-15, maybe 20 (snap) range, but all of a sudden he gets a sack and makes a tackle early in the game, so now he jumps in the 30s. That's exactly what I'm talking about. He was playing more fluid. He was using his hands better."
McKenzie has notched 18 total tackles and a forced fumble on the season in 11 games, including two total and one tackle for loss against the Tigers Saturday. Stripling has watched as his freshman tackle has grown over the course of the season to earn meaningful snaps after beginning the season on the bench.
The former Scout No. 1 overall player in the country is maintaining his weight of around 330 pounds and vastly improved his technique.
"I think about a third of the way through the season, the light kind of clicked on that 'I need to practice harder,'" Stripling said. "'I can't just stand up and push people around like I have my whole life.' There's some pretty good players on that field. I think the light just came on. I think it's maturity .. He's really done a great job with his weight. It has not been an issue."
Stripling has lost five defensive linemen to injury on the season, but those like McKenzie who remain on the unit aren't nearly as banged up as they were in the middle of the season.
"People may think I'm crazy, but we're probably healthier now even though we have a few people out," he said. "The pas two Sundays, the trainers have just waved at me in the hallway. Usually we've had to sit down and have a lengthy conversation."
Outstanding O-Line Play
But Tennessee's offense rushed for 248 yards on 51 attempts and a didn't allow a sack, prompting offensive coordinator Mike DeBord to call it one of, if not the, best games his unit has played this season.
"I would say I'd have to think back on it a little bit, but I would say it's obviously one of their best performances without a doubt," DeBord told InsideTennessee. "I thought, really after watching the film, that our offensive line played their best football game as a unit. I'm talking about footwork, I'm talking about leverage. We've got to get better with our hands, but that's one of the things we're working on this week."
Tennessee runs a counter play with Jalen Hurd that has helped the sophomore rack up 151 yards on 34 carries, continuing the Vols' season-long dominance on the ground into the final weeks of the season. Tennessee is averaging 213.7 yards per game, the highest ground yardage per game the progam has averaged since 1994 (231.8).
"It's no secret that we run that counter play a lot," DeBord said. "Our guys up front, our tight ends, do a great job blocking it, but he has great vision on that play. An example would be, he saw the backside linebacker really pursuing over the top, and he really made some cutbacks off of that, and that's also, I think, a product of we don't have a lot of runs, and those backs continue to run that play over and over and over again. Jalen Hurd owns that counter play."