KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee doesn’t have any preseason All-SEC first-team members, but that doesn’t mean the Vols won’t have some first-team picks after the season.
In many cases, the preseason teams are based on what players did a season ago, and many of Tennessee’s top players were injured, while others emerged later in the season.
Things were particularly challenging for the defense last season, with first-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop trying to install his defense while having to use multiple combinations at defensive line, linebacker and in the secondary.
Here are five defensive players — including the punter — capable of making first-team All-SEC this season:
No. 1 MLB Darrin Kirkland Jr.
The Vols’ junior middle linebacker is a 6-foot-1, 238-pound tackling machine when healthy and will anchor what figures to be the most improved defense in the SEC.
Kirkland started 10 games as a true freshman (66 tackles), but a high ankle sprain suffered in the 45-24 win over Virginia Tech in the second game of the 2016 season cost him much of his sophomore campaign.
Kirkland returned for the South Carolina game, but he was a shell of his former self until he was healthy enough to turn it up in the 38-24 bowl win over Nebraska with 2 tackles for loss.
With a legit defensive line in front of him, Kirkland figures to be one of the SEC’s breakout stars and should get NFL scouts talking.
No. 2 S Todd Kelly Jr.
The senior from Knoxville had 3 interceptions as a freshman and 3 more his sophomore campaign, but last season was a disappointment by Kelly’s standards.
Kelly was slowed by a knee contusion and ankle injury the second half of 2016, finishing with just 2 picks.
Kelly dropped 10 pounds in the offseason, aware that NFL scouts want to see a faster, more physical version of him.
No. 3 DE Jonathan Kongbo
The nation’s No. 1-ranked junior college prospect coming into 2016 will be the first to tell you he needed to mature at the FBS level and learn to play with technique.
Now that he has, Kongbo could be on the verge of a magical junior season with Brady Hoke focused in on the defensive front and Shoop orchestrating exotic packages.
Kongbo had a 59-yard interception return for touchdown against Missouri last season from the defensive tackle position and stepped up with 4 stops and a sack in the bowl win over Nebraska.
Rising junior Darrell Taylor just missed the list, but his presence is just as important. Kongbo and Taylor have pushed and fed off one another while leading the team in the weight room this offseason.
No. 4 P Trevor Daniel
Daniel is one of the larger punters you’ll find (6-1, 227), but more importantly, one of the more effective.
The former in-state walk-on from Dickson led the SEC in punting yards last season (3,120), and his average (44.6) was third-best in the league.
More importantly and most impressively, Daniel dropped 28 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, and Tennessee’s net punting ranked 24th in the nation.
No. 5 DT Kahlil McKenzie
The former 5-star, top-10 prospect has done little to live up to his billing to this point, starting 1 game of the 20 he has played in his first two years at Tennessee.
McKenzie seemingly has overcome his injuries entering his junior campaign and could be poised to live up to his famous football name.
McKenzie had a strong offseason in the weight room, improving his 6-3, 320-pound frame, and with Hoke coaching him he has everything working in his favor to have a breakout year.