With DT injuries mounting, Kahlil McKenzie’s progression key for Tennessee
Lost in the amazing comeback win against Georgia, Tennessee’s defensive line played exceptionally well in the second half against the Bulldogs. The Vols only surrendered seven points in the second half and that score came on a 50-yard bomb to receiver Reggie Davis.
One big reason for the turnaround – literally as well as figuratively – was the play of 6-foot-3, 344-pound freshman defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie. McKenzie, joined by fellow true freshman defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, started the second half of the game and routinely anchored the line, forcing Georgia into long third downs after minimal gains on first and second down.
"We thought he played his best game of his short Tennessee career so far in the Georgia game, particularly in the second half," Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said Monday. "He has done a very good job of creating great football stamina. We’re going to need him to be able to give us a number of plays in a row."
Tuttle was lost for the season in the Georgia game, as Jones alluded to, McKenzie’s role will need to continue to be expanded in Tuttle’s absence as the team faces the second half of its schedule.
Having missed his senior season of high school due to being ruled ineligible following a transfer and being limited during a portion of fall camp due to injury, McKenzie is still playing himself into SEC shape.
"The confidence that was gained in that [Georgia] game is great for him moving forward, and he’s worked very hard in practice," Jones said. "Here’s a youngster who did not play his senior year. He’s going through missing his senior year and he missed half of training camp with an injury as well. Now, he’s kind of getting into that structure, that routine, and you can see him progressing and getting better and better with his fundamentals [and] his details, the use of his hands, and his football stamina.
"We anticipate his role in this football team continuing to grow, and we need that because we have a lack of depth there."
With a road trip to Alabama looming, the biggest challenge of McKenzie’s young football career is staring him in the face. How will the young star perform? If he continues to progress and has the game of his life, his legend will only grow in the hearts of the Tennessee faithful.