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10 Questions for 2016 #9: Kahlil McKenzie, Year Two

Outback Bowl - Northwestern v Tennessee Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

The conversation on Tennessee’s sophomore defensive tackle always seems to include weight. McKenzie is down 20 pounds and in the best shape of his life. After playing around 345 lbs last season, McKenzie will enter fall camp around 325 and wearing #99 instead of #1.

His freshman season featured 24 total tackles, and McKenzie was at his best against run-heavy teams from Arkansas, Georgia, and Northwestern with 13 tackles in those three games, plus a sack against Missouri. For a true freshman defensive tackle, there should be no complaints about those numbers.

But McKenzie was no ordinary true freshman. This time last year the thought that McKenzie wouldn’t immediately dominate required deep breaths to suppress. The rest of Tennessee’s defensive tackles made some good things happen but none of them, not even the upperclassmen, carried such lofty expectations.

It is this weight that remains most fascinating with McKenzie. He was not only the crown jewel of Butch Jones’ best recruiting class in 2015, but 247 rates him as the fourth-best Tennessee recruit since 2000 behind Bryce Brown, Eric Berry, and Gerald Riggs Jr.

When we talk about how good this Tennessee team could possibly be, it’s a conversation that includes what Bob Shoop’s defense could be based largely on what we’ve already seen from his scheme and Tennessee’s talent. We know about Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and Cam Sutton. There are rising stars like Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Todd Kelly Jr.

But the best of the very best visions of what this Tennessee defense could be include McKenzie rising to his massive potential.

Tennessee will be loaded at defensive end with Barnett on one side and a number of strong options on the other. The Vols return some experience at tackle with Kendall Vickers, Danny O’Brien, and recovering fellow sophomore Shy Tuttle. But McKenzie’s progress could be the key to Tennessee’s defensive line going from good to championship good. If he even approaches that potential this year, we could be talking about not just an all-time recruit breaking out, but an all-time defensive line. When we think of championship teams from the SEC in the last ten years, we think of great defensive lines. If Tennessee is going to find itself in that conversation this year, there’s a strong probability a surge from McKenzie will be a big part of it.

Even if McKenzie simply makes a natural progression from his freshman to sophomore year and becomes a regular starter and consistent force on the line, Tennessee’s defense will improve. But #99 still carries some of the heaviest weight of expectation for all of Team 120. How much will McKenzie improve in his sophomore season? And what kind of difference could he make for Tennessee’s defense?