Tennessee defensive line coach Steve Stripling implored the media to help him coach Kahlil McKenzie on Thursday. It was a simple message that even scribes and talking heads could handle.
“As soon as you guys see Kahlil, tell him to ‘Get down. Get low,’” Stripling joked with the media following Thursday’s practice. “Pass on that message. Every day in film, I stop the camera and say, ‘Coach yourself.’ He says, ‘Leverage’. For him, learning to get his pad level down is something that we’re working tremendously hard on.”
It’s not surprising that McKenzie, who will be a sophomore this season, is struggling with technique since he didn’t play football as a high school senior because of a transfer rule that deemed him ineligible. Moreover, when McKenzie did play in high school, he could rely on brute strength and athleticism. He had no need to fine tune fundamentals until now.
McKenzie, who is the son of Oakland Raiders general manager and former Tennessee linebacker Reggie McKenzie, isn’t the only underclassman trying to learn how to play football at the college level. With so many injuries on the defensive line, several players have found themselves on the front line, namely defensive ends Darrell Taylor and Austin Smith.
“I just keep telling them to embrace it,” Stripling said. “It’s an opportunity to get reps and an opportunity to get better. And it’s a great chance to work on your mental toughness. That’s something that … is a really big part of a defensive lineman. It’s hard to practice that without taking a lot of reps, getting tired and pushing through.”
Stripling said he wasn’t completely pleased with his backups’ performance after Thursday’s practice. It was a challenge, as the Vols held most of practice with just seven defensive linemen.
“I’m not sure that we embraced it greatly today, but we got through and I think they’re learning from it,” Stripling said.
Overall, Taylor, who is a redshirt freshman, has certainly caught his coach’s eye, mostly due to his physical development.
“You wouldn’t even recognize him,” Stripling said. “When he walks in the room, he looks like a totally different person. His numbers are unbelievable. He’s put on so much weight. His energy level just continues to be outstanding. He’s really developed.”
As of now, the same can’t be said for Smith, a sophomore who moved from linebacker to defensive end when spring practice began.
“Austin Smith is going through some of those growing pains, moving from linebacker,” Stripling said. “Today we hit the sled. Some of the guys that haven’t hit it a thousand times, the sled was winning some reps today.”
The goal is to mold Smith after former Vol Curt Maggitt, who was a force when healthy. As a hybrid linebacker/defensive end, Maggitt was a standout during his junior season in 2014 when he had 11 sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. That’s the plan for Smith.
“He’ll have the ability to play outside and he’ll have the ability to put his hand down,” Stripling said of Smith. “Right now, we’re focusing on him putting his hand down. That’s the harder part.”
First-year Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has had nearly two weeks of practice to evaluate his young defensive linemen. He’s being patient — because he has to.
“They’re raw,” Shoop said. “People develop at different times. At some point, the light will go on. They’ve done silly things that have kept them from reaching their max potential, but they’ll continue to get better. They certainly have the skill set that leads me and leads us to believe they can be really good players.”