Tennessee owned a 9-0 lead over Missouri on a night in Columbia not too terribly unlike November evenings in Wisconsin.
Tigers quarterback Drew Lock dropped back on first down and got brought to the artificial turf by a body entirely too large to be donning the No. 1.
It didn’t come quite as quickly as some would have thought but Kahlil McKenzie’s sack of Lock was the first of collegiate career. It was one of 14 tackles that the former Scout five-star prospect registered in his first season of football since McKenzie’s junior year at De La Salle High School in Concord, California.
Expectations for incoming recruits with five stars next to their names are often unfair. Just how special can an 18-year-old defensive tackle be in a place like the Southeastern Conference? In a modern world where star ratings cause fans of the same program to go at each other with plastic sporks, those expectations are in the heavens if players with McKenzie’s talent have a rating that puts Orion’s Belt to shame.
The transfer from De La Salle to Clayton Valley Charter School didn’t sit well with certain decision makers. That cost McKenzie his senior season of prep football. An arthroscopic surgery on a knee didn’t help the 6-foot-3 talent stay in shape. Hope to graduate early and enroll on Rocky Top got thwarted as well.
McKenzie showed his might at U.S. Army All-American Bowl week in January 2015 but that time didn’t come close to making up for the lost time of development.
A healthy knee, a year of college football in the rear-view, time in the defensive line meeting room under not only assistant coach Steve Stripling but experienced Volunteers like fellow tackles Danny O’Brien and Owen Williams have McKenzie in position to take a giant step forward.
Tennessee needs McKenzie to turn the corner at a swifter pace in 2016. Not many programs will have the strength and girth up front of Alabama. Next to no one will have the backfield talent of Georgia. The offense in College Station comes with a tempo that would exhaust the back end of a peloton.
Stripling isn’t as deep at D-tackle as the fourth-year Vols assistant would like to be. Signee Alexis Johnson continues to be suspended and has never had a practice on the DI level. Williams and Trevarris Saulsberry (did not play in 2015) are gone. Fellow sophomore Shy Tuttle continues to work his way back from the controversial injury suffered against Georgia in October.
McKenzie, who reportedly weighed 327 pounds when he signed with the Big Orange in February 2015, is now a “slim 315 pounds,” according to Butch Jones at Monday’s pre-training camp press conference. The D-tackle officially vacated No. 1 for incoming five-star defensive lineman Jonathan Kongbo.
Greater number. Smaller body.
McKenzie’s thick lower half now goes with a waistline with far less goo. The bucket-hat wearing defender needed that size redistributed as he's going to have to shed blocks from the likes of All-SEC offensive linemen such as Georgia's Brandon Kublanow and Alabama's Alphonse Taylor.
It’s not all on McKenzie to hold up in the trenches for the Vols. O’Brien, Tuttle, Quay Picou, Kendal Vickers and possibly Kongbo and Andrew Butcher round out a healthy portion of the two-deep at tackle.
Vickers just completed his first full season at D-tackle. Tuttle will be “very, very limited” through much of August. Butcher and Kongbo have never played a DI game and are natural ends. McKenzie is the guy that is healthy, available, strong and capable.
Tennessee hits Haslam Field late Monday afternoon as it prepares for its season opener versus Appalachian State on Sept. 1 at 7:30 p.m. Eastern.