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10 Questions for 2015 #5 - The Kahlil McKenzie Hype Train

It stops for no man.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Fall camp opened on Tuesday, offering the first official glimpse of Team 119 in action since the Orange & White Game.  And this is the full squad, newcomers and all, as the Vols make themselves ready for the season opener in just 31 days.

It's still a slow burn:  the Vols won't put pads on for a few days, the open practice is 10 days away, and those tasty and as-reliable-as-your-mind-makes-them fall scrimmage stats will trickle slowly down the pipe.  For now, all we have is the old, "Who looked good out there?"  And we will be especially interested in the new answers.

The leaders in coaches' chatter are sometimes right on the money.  In August 2011 we started hearing about these guys A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt.  They would end up finishing second and third on the team in tackles that fall.  The next year it was junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson, who accounted for 163 yards of total offense in the season opener to begin a one-and-done campaign.

Last year Tennessee had so many interesting freshmen it was hard for one to stand out in early camp chatter.  The Vols have just as many interesting freshmen this year.  But for more than a year now, one of them has clearly stood out.

Kahlil McKenzie is, on paper, Tennessee's most highly-touted incoming freshman since Bryce Brown.  The big defensive tackle was a consensus five star and finished as the sixth highest rated recruit in the nation in the 247 Composite. That's the highest rated player the Vols have signed since Brown finished second in the composite in 2009.  By comparison, here are Tennessee's highest rated recruits in the last five years:

  • 2014:  Josh Malone (36)
  • 2013:  Marquez North (90)
  • 2012:  LaDarrell McNeil (91)
  • 2011:  DeAnthony Arnett (40)
  • 2010:  Da'Rick Rogers (11)
The Bryce Brown comparison may slow your pulse when placing expectations on your top freshman, but the anticipation surrounding McKenzie is magnified because it's been so long since the Vols had an elite presence at defensive tackle.  And how soon McKenzie can grow into those expectations will have a lot to say about Tennessee's ceiling defensively this fall.

I believe the Vols can field a good defense with Danny O'Brien and Owen Williams at defensive tackle.  But if Tennessee can get productive snaps from McKenzie and/or Shy Tuttle in the trenches in SEC play, the Vols will have quality depth on the defensive line for the first time in ages.

And there is, of course, a chance that McKenzie - all 6'3" 327 lbs of him - can show up and give the Vols destructive snaps right away.  There's a chance he is at least some form of the things we want him to be, not just later, but right now.  If that happens?  Tennessee's defense can go from good to great in a hurry.

If McKenzie can play above his age and to his ability right away, suddenly you're talking about not just one of the best defensive end tandems in the country, but one of the best defensive lines in the SEC.  Defensive line has long been the first answer when asked what separates the SEC from the rest of college football.  And the Vols have struggled there, especially in the middle.  Since John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth were both taken in the first 15 picks of the 2002 NFL Draft, Tennessee has had only five defensive tackles drafted.  Two of them, Justin Harrell and Dan Williams, went in the first round.  The other three were taken in rounds five and six.  While the great teams in this league have been winning the line of scrimmage in the last decade, the Vols have seen a revolving door of transfers, walk-ons, former defensive ends and former offensive linemen try to keep up in the trenches at defensive tackle.

It hasn't worked, despite those kids giving their all for Tennessee.  Since 2008 the Vols have finished no better than eighth in the SEC in rushing yards per carry allowed, including a pair of 13th place finishes in 2012 and 2013.  Even when Tennessee has had elite defensive players at other positions and been able to create some success on that side of the ball, there was no consistent pressure on the quarterback until last year, and few answers for teams simply lining it up and running right up the middle.

It was Derek Barnett one year ago who ended up winning the coaches' chatter portion and, ultimately, the MVP of the Class of 2014.  His presence instantly transformed Tennessee's pass rush and thus its entire defense, and unlike so many talented kids Barnett didn't hit the wall late in his freshman campaign, he amazingly got better every week.  Defensive tackle may be one of the hardest positions for a true freshman to come in and play, but McKenzie is anything but a typical freshman.  Barnett shouldn't be used as a direct comparison or a bar for expectations, and it's probably unfair to assume McKenzie will even start.  But the big guy has earned much of this hype on his own.  The idea that he might live up to even some of it right away makes Tennessee fans very, very happy.

So we will wait for the whispers and then the glimpses, the big dude wearing #1 at defensive tackle.  We are eager to replace images like these with ones of him wearing the orange and white.  We are ready for him to go from dog walking Bama commits (seriously, this is one of my favorite tweets ever) to dog walking SEC starters.  I'm very unsure the Kahlil McKenzie hype train can even be slowed down, and I'm very unsure it will need to be.

All the signs point to the question not being if, but how soon?  And if the answer is, in fact, "soon," I think we can say the same for the nearness of Tennessee's return to a championship-caliber defense.