Tennessee’s program has become known for freshmen coming in and playing right away, but not every story on the team follows that pattern.
Redshirt linebacker Kenny Bynum has waited and waited for the opportunity that he got in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
After taking a redshirt season in 2012, Bynum was buried on the depth chart in 2013 and only saw action in four games as a reserve. The 2014 season didn’t look a lot different with Bynum battling for a spot behind senior A.J. Johnson.
But Johnson’s suspension near the end of the regular season bumped Bynum up the depth chart. Even after true freshman Jakob Johnson won the job initially, Bynum, who originally committed to Butch Jones at Cincinnati before backing off that and signing with Derek Dooley at Tennessee, kept battling and the Jacksonville native got his first career start for the Vols in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Iowa in his hometown.
“We always talk about when your opportunity presents itself, take advantage of it,” Jones said after the game. “Kenny did that tonight. Again, for him, his family, this will be something they’ll remember forever. The opportunity to come home and play in front of your hometown in Jacksonville, play in the TaxSlayer Bowl, come away with a victory, hoist that trophy, it’s very fitting.
“Kenny is an individual who has always been prepared. He understands the defense. He had his opportunity tonight. He made the most of it.”
Bynum estimated that over 200 friends and family attended the game. Knowing that Tennessee was playing in his home city and that much of his family would be there to witness it motivated him over the course of the bowl practices.
“Definitely,” Bynum said of his motivation to keep pushing Jakob Johnson, who is also a Jacksonville-area native. “We’re really close friends, we’re both from Jacksonville and it was good competition, but all I could think about was the people who look up to me like my family and people at my high school – I couldn’t let them down.”
It wasn’t a prefect performance, but Bynum recorded a pair of stops and a pass breakup that helped solidify a starting defense that allowed Iowa to score just seven points in the first three quarters as the Vols easily pulled away in a comfortable win.
“I think I did alright,” Bynum said. “Definitely have a lot of stuff to work on – I’m 20 years old, so I have a lot to work on like pass rush and keeping up with stamina with all that, not getting tired. I definitely have a lot to work on and we’re going to use this spring to do that.”
It’ll be a big spring for both Bynum and Jakob Johnson, who will battle newcomer Darrin Kirkland Jr., redshirt freshman Gavin Bryant and others to be Tennessee’s future inside linebacker.
Regardless of that position battle outcome, Bynum got some experience that will serve him and the Vols well in the future as they continue to build depth. Bynum also got one of the greatest experiences of his career and a chance to play in the NFL stadium he grew up going to.
“I was just happy because I’ve never been able to play in the Jacksonville Jaguars stadium before and it’s like my dream to play there – always went there as a little kid and it was the perfect opportunity,” he said.