The Must List: Tennessee Defensive Tackles

With the start of fall camp right around the corner, it’s time to look at some picks to prosper at each position.

Over the next few days leading up to the beginning of practice, we’ll examine each position and spotlight a player who the Vols desperately need to perform well as well as one who could elevate the team if he lives up to expectations.

Think of these as the old Chicago White Sox WGN announcers’ “picks to click.”

The Vols have an opportunity to be really good on the defensive interior in 2017, but they definitely need a lot of breaks. Nobody is expecting them to be that salty inside after an injury-riddled last season, but UT could sneak up on a lot of teams with all the talent it has. All that potential must produce, though, or none of that means anything. You’re going to see the word “if” a lot in this article and in preseason discussions about the Vols. If Kahlil McKenzie lives up to expectations… If Shy Tuttle can get and stay healthy… If Alexis Johnson and Quay Picou can provide quality depth… If Kendal Vickers can provide leadership and some interior explosion in his redshirt year…

Those “ifs” haven’t been great to the Vols in recent years, but with a new defensive line coach in Brady Hoke and a defensive coordinator in Bob Shoop that must be feeling the heat after a pitiful first year on Rocky Top, they must turn into “whens” for the Vols to reach expectations. Let’s take a look at Tennessee’s defensive tackle situation.

MUST

KAHLIL MCKENZIE, Junior

There hasn’t been a more hyped Tennessee recruit since Eric Berry. As a matter of fact, I was on the record a couple of years ago saying McKenzie, a UT legacy with an NFL body and a 5-star pedigree was a can’t-miss prospect who’d contribute right away.

Well, the clock is ticking.

Yes, McKenzie did contribute right away, but dominance has been far off. Now, after coming into UT at more than 360 pounds, he’s hit the weight room under new strength and conditioning coach Rock Gullickson, and he’s geared up to play the 2017 season at 320 pounds. That should help him with the rigors of being an every-down defensive tackle.

But how quickly will McKenzie adapt to his new body? Has he lost any of the strength that enabled him to bully some of the best high school players in the country? All of that remains to be seen.

The bottom line is McKenzie — the son of former UT defender Reggie and the nephew of All-SEC offensive lineman Raleigh — is in put-up or shut-up mode. He’s done a lot of talking in his first two years on Rocky Top on social media and other avenues, and he’s not short on confidence. He’s also contributed meaningful snaps, but other than being an interior space-eater, he’s not made anywhere near the impact recruiting analysts predicted.

His career has been overshadowed by part-time player Shy Tuttle, who has endured two season-ending injuries in two years. Now, with Tuttle still nursing his last battle, this is McKenzie’s defensive line along with Vickers. He MUST show up. He MUST dominate. He MUST get through the line, collapse the middle and provide a push. He MUST have better technique and use his ability as the team’s strongest player to produce key snaps that end possessions.

If he doesn’t do that, the Vols simply won’t be that good on defense. He’s that important.

McKenzie was expected to be a program-turning talent who’d help the Vols elevate their defense to a championship level. Instead, he has been a part-time player who hasn’t been able to stay on the field in every-down situations for whatever reason.

After really blossoming against Texas A&M with five tackles and one for a loss and looking like the kind of player UT recruited, McKenzie tore his pectoral muscle against Alabama and missed the rest of the season, limiting him to just seven games. Though that was a massive loss to UT, it gave him more time to focus on preparing his body for the rigors of SEC play.

It’s time now for him to return with a vengeance.

“Fans and coaches have been waiting to see McKenzie live up to the hype he brought to Knoxville, but against Alabama last year — in his first career start — he went down with a season-ending pectoral injury,” ESPN.com’s Edward Aschoff wrote. “McKenzie has so much potential he has yet to tap into.”

Hoke is tapped to bring it out.

Now, this has the potential for McKenzie to own this defense, to become the alpha dog he was known as during a high school career that had every single college football team in the country wanting him.

The time has come. Much like Kyle Phillips and Tuttle, McKenzie was part of that 2015 recruiting class that was supposed to make UT’s defensive line one of the best in the SEC. If it doesn’t start to happen now, it won’t. His development is vital.

MIGHT

ALEXIS JOHNSON, Redshirt Junior

The top-rated JUCO defensive tackle in the 2016 recruiting class was expected to come to Knoxville and make an immediate impact for a Vols interior defensive line that needed him.

Instead, he dealt with an off-the-field issue involving a woman that wound up keeping him suspended for six months from the team. After seeing charges reduced, Johnson returned to the team after a season-long hiatus, and he looked right away this spring like he was going to help the team.

There’s a season why Alabama, Florida and others wanted him out of JUCO. If he winds up being the player the Vols expected he’d be, he’ll be one of the top two defensive tackles off the bench this year and provide UT with some major depth on the interior.

If he does, there’s no reason why UT’s front can’t be salty.

Shoop told GoVols247’s Ryan Callahan this spring that Johnson was “doing all the right things” to become part of the rotation.

“Alexis is working hard to get himself into the shape that it requires to play at this level, just like Jonathan Kongbo a year ago — some of those junior-college guys. I think sometimes when you’re a junior-college guy, you guys think, ‘OK, it’s like signing an NFL free agent.’ These guys, this is a pretty high level of football. When they get here, they don’t get, necessarily, what it’s all about.”

It’s trial-by-fire time. Behind Vickers, McKenzie and a healthy Tuttle once he returns full-strength during the first third of the season, the Vols are searching for depth. Junior Quay Picou is up to 280 pounds and should be a quality player on the interior, but Johnson is right there. He’d be in the five-man rotation right now, for sure. With the Vols needing a freshman like Matthew Butler or Kivon Bennett to step up and provide some snaps in that rotation, it would be huge for Johnson to be something other than a warm body.

As a matter of fact, if Johnson is a stud, it may enable Butler to slide outside and help on the edge where the Vols need much more depth at end.

Johnson was a guy a lot of teams wanted as a recruit, and when he committed to UT, the rest of the SEC turned up the heat. But the 6’4″, 300-pound redshirt junior from Atlanta stuck with the Vols, and UT stuck with him last year through his ordeal. Now, it’s time for him to show that head coach Butch Jones knew what they were doing trusting his talent.

If he produces in a big way, the Vols’ defensive line will be much better than it was a season ago.

 

  • For a look at UT’s quarterbacks “must” list, click here.
  • For a look at UT’s running backs “must” list, click here.
  • For a look at UT’s wide receivers/tight ends “must” list, click here.
  • For a look at UT’s offensive line “must” list, click here.
  • For a look at UT’s defensive ends “must” list, click here.

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