One of the biggest questions surrounding the Vols this season is how will the defense perform after an abysmal 2016?
Yes, Tennessee dealt with an insane amount of injuries last year, but that cannot - and must not - be the ultimate absolute as to why they performed so badly.
Things aren’t looking so good for the 2017 season, either. The leader of the defense, Darrin Kirkland Jr. is out indefinitely with a knee injury - which is a huge loss for the Vols.
Brady Hoke was also on record just a couple of weeks ago saying the Vols still have a ton of work to do on defense, especially up front.
This may paint a bleak picture for UT, however, Pro Football Focus recently did a study on junior defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie and may have given Vols fans a second wind when it comes to the defensive side of the ball.
According to PFF, McKenzie graded as the second-best returning interior defensive lineman among defenders with less than 200 snaps in the Power 5 before his season-ending injury. Be sure to check out his impressive pass-rush grades as well.
The competition during his six games was no slouch, either. He helped the Vols beat Virginia Tech, Florida, and Georgia. He also recorded a career-high five tackles against Texas A&M.
So what does this mean for the Vols and McKenzie? Well, not much if he can’t keep up the pace from last year, but he doesn’t see that happening.
At 100% health and in the best shape of his life, McKenzie notices a sizeable difference where he is now compared to last season not only physically, but mentally as well.
"You can be more detailed-oriented when you're in better shape. Pre-snap identification, all that stuff, it just comes a whole lot easier." - Kahlil McKenzie, via govols247.com
There is no doubt that McKenzie has the size, the tenacity, and the ability to be an excellent player for the Vols. If fellow defensive tackle Shy Tuttle can also stay healthy, then UT has arguably one of the best interior line combos in the country on defense.
They desperately need McKenzie to pick up where he left off in 2016. It seems as if he and the rest of the defense have a lot to prove in 2017.
The only question is, can they do it?