5-Star Kahlil McKenzie Commitment Will Be Program-Defining Pledge for Tennessee

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJuly 11, 2014

5-star DT Kahlil McKenzie is one of the biggest recruiting victories of coach Butch Jones' career.
5-star DT Kahlil McKenzie is one of the biggest recruiting victories of coach Butch Jones' career.Credit: 247Sports

Forget bricks. Tennessee added a big ol' pillar to its rebuilding project Thursday night when 5-star defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie committed to the Volunteers.

After being named the Defensive Line MVP at The Opening, the 6'4", 341-pound prospect committed to the Vols over Arizona in front of a live television audience on ESPNU.

McKenzie is much more than a major recruiting win at a position of need for UT coach Butch Jones. The recruit has the ability to be a program-changer and the cornerstone of a defense.

In a league where championships are won in the trenches, McKenzie's commitment marks the biggest remaining puzzle piece that Jones needed to secure to get Tennessee back in the conference arms race.

McKenzie decided to follow in his family footsteps and commit to Tennessee, where his father Reggie and uncle Raleigh played in the 1980s.

"First I’d like to say thank you to my family and all my friends, and thank you to God for blessing me with tremendous talent in this sport of football that I love so much," McKenzie told ESPNU's Tom Luginbill. "But for the next few years, I’ll be attending...the University of Tennessee."

Before McKenzie uttered his final destination, he reached for his signature bucket hat. This one was orange with two white stripes and had a power T prominently displayed.

"It's just a second home," McKenzie continued. "Everything about it I love. From top to bottom, everything about it is just a perfect fit for me."

Now, the younger McKenzie is firmly in the fold and can attempt to recruit other elite defensive linemen to join him on Rocky Top.

McKenzie Turned Heads at The Opening

Regardless of McKenzie's family ties to the program, Jones recruited him like he was never a UT lean.

The second-year UT coach doggedly pursued him via visits, constant communication and social media, ultimately landing a prize that—along with last year's pledge by Jalen Hurd—is one of the two biggest of the coach's short tenure.

The Concord, California, defensive tackle proved this past week he's the kind of player Jones couldn't take for granted, even with his connections to the school.

McKenzie is fresh off a dominant performance against the nation's best at The Opening, where he did nothing but solidify (if not elevate) his status as one of the biggest impact players in the 2015 class.

Analysts such as Scout.com's Scott Kennedy wondered aloud if McKenzie shouldn't be the nation's top overall player:

Regardless of where he finishes in the recruiting rankings, McKenzie left little doubt he was worthy of his 5-star status. He is also going to be a handful for linemen for the next four years.

Against some of the nation's top offensive linemen, he showcased his talents as a dominant pass-rusher, blowing quickly by them into the backfield.

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder recognized McKenzie as one of his biggest freaks from The Opening. Felder also mentioned him prominently as one of the beasts who blew up the lineman challenge.

His performance made everybody in the nation take note of one of the fastest-rising prospects in the cycle.

Can McKenzie Cure All?

Kahlil McKenzie this week during some down time at The Opening. When he was on the field, he starred.
Kahlil McKenzie this week during some down time at The Opening. When he was on the field, he starred.Credit: 247Sports

McKenzie possesses the skill set that Tennessee has lacked on the defensive line in recent years. Not only is he blessed with a thick, powerful body and tree-trunk legs, but he also has incredible athleticism for his size, as evidenced by his 101.04 SPARQ Rating at The Opening, per StudentSports.com.

A lane-clogging interior force who also has the quickness to bull rush quarterbacks is a luxury the Vols haven't consistently boasted.

Current Denver Bronco Malik Jackson had that talent during his career in Knoxville, but not since the days of Albert Haynesworth and John Henderson has UT had a player with the size and athleticism of McKenzie.

The Vols have struggled miserably on defense during their recent swoon, especially during the past four years.

A Rocky Run: Tennessee Near SEC's Worst in Recent Defense
YearTotal Defense Rank (Yards)Rush Defense Rank (Yards)Sacks Rank (No.)
201311th (418.4 ypg)13th (2,488 yards)14th (18)
201214th (471.3 ypg)12th (2,266 yards)14th (17)
20117th (340.5 ypg)7th (1,952 yards)11th (15)
201010th (382.2 ypg)9th (1,983 yards)7th (26)

A study of composite rankings from 2009 to 2013 shows the Vols' recent struggles to sign elite defensive linemen. Of the 26 linemen who did commit to UT, 10 didn't finish their careers in Knoxville.

  • UT signed only 12 defensive ends during that span, and their average recruiting ranking was 30th at their respective positions.
  • Of the 14 players who wound up as defensive tackles, UT's average positional ranking was 31st.

Jones Turning Fortunes Around in D-Line Recruiting

Kahlil McKenzie won DL MVP at the Nike NFTC event in Oakland, California, to earn his invitation to The Opening.
Kahlil McKenzie won DL MVP at the Nike NFTC event in Oakland, California, to earn his invitation to The Opening.Credit: 247Sports

With Jones at the helm, the Vols attempted to cure those ills with the 2014 recruiting class, signing eight defensive linemen. Six of those were 4-star prospects on either the 247Composite rankings or on 247Sports.

Still, just one of those players (Michael Sawyers) is a no-doubt interior defensive lineman. Others like Derek Barnett and Dimarya Mixon were ends that the Vols are growing into tackles, and guys like Charles Mosley may eventually fit on the offensive line.

Not McKenzie. He's a star defensive tackle all the way who can stop the run and rush the passer. He's a rare breed with the athleticism to complement his size, and he's the kind of player around which championship defenses are built.

The moment he signs his letter of intent, McKenzie will be in the defensive tackle rotation. Not only is he that good, he's that big of a need.

Given UT's inability to sign elite defensive tackles in recent memory who possess the skill set to dominate in a league loaded with quality players, McKenzie is the kind of player who will go a long way in curing the Vols' defensive ills.

If Jones can pair him with another top target remaining on the list, such as defensive ends Josh Sweat or Kyle Phillips or defensive tackles D.J. Jones, Shy Tuttle or Tim Settle, the Vols will be set for the future in the defensive trenches.

McKenzie is the biggest cornerstone yet for Jones' program.

All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports Composite. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:



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