Former Alabama quarterback and SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy issued a biting challenge to Tennessee’s defensive tackles on Tuesday.
“They need to step up,” McElroy said on the SEC Network during coverage of the 2016 SEC Media Days.
“They’re not the deepest group, and that’s OK. … But they need to be more effective than they were last year.”
The Volunteers ranked No. 45 nationally in rush defense in 2015 — 9th in the SEC — allowing 151.6 yards a game. McElroy, along with former LSU All-American defensive lineman Marcus Spears, specifically singled out Tennessee sophomore defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie as a player who must improve this fall.
“We heard all the hype and hoopla surrounding McKenzie last year,” McElroy said.
“How he was going to be the best defensive tackle in the SEC from Day 1. You know what, he was a disappointment. I know he was a freshman last year, but if he’s going to come in with those type of accolades and expectations, you need to be more sound in the run game than he was a year ago.”
McKenzie came to Tennessee as a heralded 5-star recruit and the No. 3 overall prospect in the 2015 class. The 6-foot-3, 325-pound defensive tackle didn’t just arrive in Knoxville with oversized pants, but massive expectations, too.
However, after sitting out his senior season due to transfer rules, McKenzie had an inconsistent freshman year, recording just 12 solo tackles and only a single sack.
He struggled with weight-management and conditioning, and Spears believes McKenzie got too caught up in his own hype.
“As a freshman you can get caught up into that, ‘I’m the No. 1 guy in the country or whatever my ranking is,’” Spears explained.
“But when you step into the SEC … these are grown mean playing on the offensive line. I believe he got a rude awakening because he believed what everybody else was saying. We all saw the video of McKenzie coming out and knocking somebody back, and he thought he was going to do that to a Laremy Tunsil or a sufficient guard in the SEC. It just doesn’t happen. Hopefully [McKenzie and sophomore Shy Tuttle] have gotten over themselves and realized, ‘I have to go to work in order to be good in this league.’”
McKenzie, a Vols legacy and the son of former Vols star linebacker and current Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, reportedly dropped weight this offseason and had a solid camp in April.
“He slimmed down,” McElroy said.
“Hopefully, going into his second year he can make a huge jump. Those linebackers at Tennessee are too good. If he can eat space up front, that defense could be scary good.”
All rankings are provided by the 247Sports composite unless otherwise noted.
Jesse Simonton covers Tennessee football and recruiting for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and SECCountry.com