Kahlil McKenzie’s decision to forgo his final season of eligibility and enter the NFL Draft is curious to say the least. It’s further proof that former UT coach Butch Jones got minimal production out of his top star prospects.
McKenzie was a “must have” in recruiting. He was one the highest-rated prospects in the country, had family ties to UT with his father and uncle being former Vols and showed freakish weight room ability. He was going to be a bona fide star at UT, but that never happened.
McKenzie showed up to UT overweight and rusty from not playing his senior year of football due to a transfer issue. That was the first warning sign. McKenzie’s development was also surely hampered by the change of his position coaches when Steve Stripling moved to an administrative role and was replaced by Brady Hoke as the defensive line coach.
However, McKenzie could overcome all of that with a senior season half as strong as he is in the weight room. By all indications, he would have had better tutelage with Jeremy Pruitt as UT’s head coach/de facto defensive coordinator and Chris Rumph and Tracy Rocker on board as assistants. A year of seasoning would have surely benefitted McKenzie with the new coaching staff.
However, herein lies part of the problem in hiring Pruitt. UT’s next coach is working double duty. He is still the defensive coordinator for Alabama as they play for a national title. He has had to implement a game plan while trying to recruit for UT. The new early signing period didn’t help the transition. So was Pruitt able to re-recruit current UT players to give his system a shot? I’m guessing not as much as he would like.
Perhaps that’s why UT has lost three juniors to the NFL that really had little reason to make the jump: McKenzie, running back John Kelly and defensive back Rashaan Gaulden. None are blue-chip NFL prospects. All would likely be starters for the Vols next season.
Of the three, McKenzie will likely be drafted the highest. He’ll wow scouts at the NFL Combine with his athleticism. He’ll have the insight from his father, Reggie McKenzie, who is the general manager of the Oakland Raiders. The elder McKenzie can tell other NFL decision makers what a mess UT has been and how that hampered his son. That’s not just a proud papa talking; it’s the truth.
However, other players have overcome the Butch dilemma and been productive at UT. Former defensive end Derek Barnett comes to mind. McKenzie couldn’t do that. He had just 36 tackles including four for a loss, two sacks and a pass break up as a junior last year. Those numbers don’t exactly jump off the stat sheet.
McKenzie’s move to the NFL certainly doesn’t help the Vols. They could have used him in 2018. He was rated the highest defensive tackle for the Vols by Pro Football Focus and the third-highest defender overall. However, that defense last season was a pretty modest group. The best chance UT has to field a superstar at defensive tackle is Shy Tuttle and he’s had various injury issues.
There’s plenty of blame to go around why McKenzie didn’t become the dominant force everyone expected. McKenzie deserves some for not showing up in shape. Jones, as he did so many times at UT, deserves some for not developing his players. However, Pruitt must carry some of the responsibility as well. While McKenzie was making his decision in Knoxville, Pruitt was still leading the Crimson Tide.
I understand and respect Pruitt’s decision to stay with Alabama IF it was out of loyalty to his players. However, if the decision was just to secure the glory of a national title, then he didn’t do his new employer any favors.