If you asked Kahlil McKenzie the day he graduated from high school how the beginning of his college career would go, his answer wouldn’t have matched how his freshman and sophomore years on Rocky Top have actually played out.
After being ruled ineligible to play football for his entire senior season of high school due to a transfer rule in California, McKenzie arrived in Knoxville overweight and not in “football shape.” Being overweight at 335 pounds hampered McKenzie during his true freshman season, but he managed to tally 24 tackles and a sack as a true freshman.
Fast forward to McKenzie’s sophomore season, a season he entered 15 pounds lighter after cutting back on fast food and changing his habits over the offseason. After recording 12 tackles and half a tackle for a loss over the course of the first seven games, the former five-star suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the first half of the Alabama game and missed the remainder of the season.
Despite the first two years of his college career not going to plan, McKenzie enters his junior season not allowing the hype of being a former five-star get to him.
“You just gotta block out the outside noise and just work hard and get better day-by-day,” McKenzie said during Tennessee’s Media Day on Sunday afternoon. “I’m just working to get one percent better like Coach Jones says. Just one percent better every day.”
McKenzie has been able to transform his body remarkably well under first-year strength and conditioning coach Rock Gullickson. While McKenzie has always possessed an imposing demeanor, he has slimmed down and worked himself into football shape to where he’s “not dying by the halfway point of practice.”
“Your body changes and you feel a lot better,” McKenzie stated. “You can do what you wanna do and that’s a big thing that Coach Rock tells everybody. He says, ‘I’m going to make you guys feel the best way you can possibly feel, cause if you feel good, you play good.’”
The phrase “if you feel good, you play good,” is a phrase that McKenzie has always leaned on because it’s one that he heard often growing up.
“My dad told me that,” McKenzie said. “That is one thing that he used to always tell me when I was lazy, ‘if you look good, you feel good, and if you feel good, you play good and if you play good, you’re going to win.’ I’ve taken that to heart.
“It’s funny, but at the same time it makes sense.”
Along with the advice of his dad, Reggie McKenzie, a former Tennessee defensive lineman himself, and Coach Gullickson, first-year defensive line coach Brady Hoke has already cemented his stamp on McKenzie as well.
“Coach Hoke brings a really good mindset,” McKenzie said of his new position coach. “His favorite thing to say once we start film is, ‘you can either be an armadillo or a baby rabbit. You can either have tough skin when we’re watching film and get better from it, or you can be a baby rabbit and get hurt by everything somebody has to say about you.’”
Now it’s all about taking those nuggets and applying it in a leadership role in a year in which the Vols really need McKenzie to play a huge part along the defensive front. Replacing the production of Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis won’t be easy, but McKenzie can help lead the way for young guys who are already standing out in camp.
“All of them continue to get better day-by-day,” McKenzie stated. “Guys like Matt Butler who is coming in, working hard every single day, just fighting for reps. Guys like Kivon Bennett, he’s having a really good camp. Little things he’s doing that get him better every day. Eric Crosby, another guy, just working hard.”
Tennessee’s mammoth defensive tackle even agreed that while the defensive line as a whole is young, it’s the most versatile line McKenzie has seen since stepped foot on UT’s campus.
“Coach Hoke says he wants to play 10 guys. So, we all have to be able to play different positions,” McKenzie added. “I started camp playing three-technique and now I’m playing nose. Matt (Butler) takes reps at three-technique, then takes reps at end. KP (Kyle Phillips) is taking reps on our three-man line and at nose.”
The Vols need their front seven to play a prominent role on defense this season. And as long as he can stay healthy, McKenzie appears poised to be a leader for that group.