Kahlil McKenzie certainly looks slimmer than he did last season. However, the Tennessee defensive tackle is still not in the kind of shape that Butch Jones is demanding.
“It’s a work in progress,” Jones said of the sophomore defensive tackle. “For Kahlil, I think it’s just the physical stamina. Being able to play — and not just being a first or second-down player — but being an every-down player and being able to get in a coiled stance on third down and come off and win your one-on-one matchups. He’s continuing to get better … A lot of it is just football stamina.”
McKenzie has taken the well-placed criticism to heart. He said he’s also striving for that football stamina Jones referred to.
“Being able to be out there, be productive, be disruptive, that kind of thing,” McKenzie said of his goals during spring practice. “That’s something I’m better suited to do now with a year of college football under my belt.”
It’s worth cutting McKenzie some slack. He didn’t play football during his senior season of high school football because of a transfer rule. He hit the weight room hard in the interim. When he showed up to preseason camp last fall, his thighs were the talk of Tennessee’s fan base. A Twitter account was even created that was called “Kahlil’s Thighs”.
McKenzie was far from fat, but not in the best condition to play college football, which is part of the reason why he only registered 12 solo tackles last season. Not bad — but given his ability — there’s reason to think much brighter days are ahead.
McKenzie doesn’t have a choice about getting in better football shape this season. He’s forced to play more snaps than he usually would as the Vols deal with various injuries on the defensive line.
“You’ve just got to embrace it,” McKenzie said. “It wasn’t scripted … I wasn’t expecting to go into my first spring with three, four guys, however many we have that day for defensive tackles. It’s something you get to embrace and use it to help myself get in better football condition and help myself get better.”
There’s another old trick that McKenzie uses to get better. As the son and nephew of two NFL players, McKenzie can obsess over studying other players, particularly the most successful ones in the NFL.
“You name the d-lineman or outside linebacker/pass rusher, I promise you I’ve probably watched tape on them,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie said he’s most enjoys studying former Volunteer Reggie White and longtime Tampa Bay Buccaneer star Warren Sapp. Both are NFL Hall of Famers. McKenzie also likes studying current players, like defensive ends J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans and Cameron Wake of the Miami Dolphins.
“All those guys, they just play the game the right way,” McKenzie said.
Notice McKenzie studies defensive ends as well as defensive tackles? Speed is also a part of his game and always has been. It’s hard to believe McKenzie used to play running back in his “small days” in eighth grade. That was a long time ago. His role changed significantly when he became a freshman in high school.
“Small days,” McKenzie recollected when asked what he weighed back then, “I just know I somehow went from playing running back to playing three-technique (defensive tackle) in a year.”