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Meet 5-Star Signee Kahlil McKenzie, the SEC's Next Bold Freshman

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 23, 2015

247Sports

This is Kahlil McKenzie, Tennessee Vols commit. You've reached my voice mail. I'll try to get back with you, but if I can't, it's probably because I'm out recruiting the greatest class in Tennessee history.

The voice-mail message smacks you around a little, much more than welcomes you with the standard warm greeting normally received on an unanswered call. 

Much like McKenzie himself, it isn't passive or shy. You know who it is up front, you know what's important to him, and there's a little good-natured trash talk at the end for good measure.

It's the perfect window into the mind of McKenzie, Tennessee's 5-star defensive tackle signee saddled with massive expectations mirroring those of the team where he's headed. 

Most Vols fans already have labeled McKenzie the next big thing, a player who hearkens back to the days of John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth. In their minds, he's already a 6'3", 354-pound, quarterback-eating, bucket-hat-wearing surefire starter.

It's heavy stuff for a high school kid who still isn't on campus. But for a player who makes a hobby of trolling Big Bad Bama and destroys the nation's top offensive linemen, it's just another task to tackle.

"Sometimes, I just laugh about it," McKenzie said of already being anointed a program savior. "Sometimes, it's just crazy that we haven't even stepped foot on the field, haven't put on pads, practiced a day, worked out a day, even stepped on campus as a student, and people are saying that kind of stuff.

"But, I mean, it does make you feel a little bit like, 'OK this is real.' There's no more messing around. This isn't high school football. This isn't middle school football. It's time to go now. We all understand that, and we're all looking forward to it, and we all accept that challenge. I don't look at it as being nervous or anything like that. I look at it straight up as a challenge."

A player who exudes confidence, McKenzie backs up that swagger with a game that has made him the nation's sixth-rated player on the 247Sports composite rankings. 

"Can't-misses" don't exist, but McKenzie is about as close as they come. Last year, LSU's Leonard Fournette was the big talker who announced his arrival on scene then backed it up with his play. Now, it's McKenzie's turn.

He appears ready to lead, ready to star and ready to become the face—and the voice—of the brash new era of Vols football.

Not-So-Quiet Confidence

Credit: 247Sports

The first thing that strikes you about Kahlil McKenzie isn't his keen football acumen that comes from having grown up in a football family. His father is Reggie McKenzie, a former Vol and NFL player who is currently the Oakland Raiders general manager. 

He possesses that quality, sure. But the thing that stands out the most for a kid who likes to swat offensive linemen to the side like cornstalks and then jaw to anybody who'll listen is that his confidence is devoid of arrogance.

For all the joking around he does with peers, future teammates and rivals, it's all in good fun. You'll find it difficult to locate anybody who dislikes him.

"I think I'm sort of a fun-loving guy," McKenzie said with a chuckle. "Even guys I've gone against, I try to joke with all of them. I try not to not be friends with anybody. I don't think many people out there hate me, and if they do, I don't really care.

"Trash talking, to me, is kind of fun, especially if it's in a game… I feel like I've been recruiting guys who feel like they're the best player you're going to go against and there's no way they can be beat. I think that's the mentality everybody should have. You should think nobody's going to stop you."

Rarely, anybody stops McKenzie.

At The Opening, Nike's prestigious summer all-star showcase, he dominated future Alabama signee Richie Petitbon more than once. He also made a "signature play" bull-rushing Ohio State signee Matthew Burrell and putting him on his back.

He and Burrell still became fast friends despite the competition.

It's that kind of swagger without stepping over the lines of respect that make people want to follow McKenzie. 

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones recalled a story about McKenzie's trip to Knoxville that bodes well for a team losing vocal leader Curt Maggitt after this season. It seems the big newcomer is already ready to fill that role.

"I joke about it: When he came in on his official visit, even the older kids were following him," Jones said. "He just has that unique personality, a confidence about him but also a humbleness about him as well. I love everything about him.

"I think Kahlil is a byproduct of his upbringing. He has tremendous passion for the game, his attitude, his enthusiasm is infectious and it's contagious, and he took ownership of this recruiting class and basically did everything on his own. The other thing about it is he had respect of his peers across the country. So whenever Kahlil spoke, people listened."

The perfect illustration of McKenzie's efforts to talk trash without being trashy came the weekend before national signing day.

After a whirlwind recruitment, UT had star in-state offensive lineman Drew Richmond on campus. McKenzie had recruited Richmond heavily, and as news began to leak over social media that Richmond was enjoying himself on the trip, McKenzie admittedly let the emotions get to him.

He let an errant tweet fly in the direction of Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze.

Kahlil McKenzie Jr. @Kahlil_Mckenzie

@CoachHughFreeze Drew didn't wanna tell you so I thought I should it's #RichmondToTheHill all day baby #VolNation 😎🍊 http://t.co/l5nr6DFllU

Some five hours later, with what he dubbed a "disrespectful" tweet still on his mind, McKenzie offered an apology. The Vols wound up flipping Richmond, and McKenzie showed what kind of person he is by swallowing his pride.

"After I sent that, I thought, 'Man, this wasn't right,'" he said. "I felt like it was disrespectful. Nobody needed to tell me that. Nobody really did. I took it upon myself to get rid of that tweet and apologize to Coach and that kind of stuff. That's what I did, and I just left it at that.

"I really couldn't sleep without apologizing, so I made sure I did that."

A Program Ripe for His Arrival

Credit: 247Sports

From a nasty-natured Derek Barnett pushing around quarterbacks to Maggitt saluting after big plays to anthem "Third Down For What" blaring over the Neyland Stadium loudspeakers, UT's defense got its groove back last year.

Enter McKenzie, the ultimate alpha dog, into a powder keg of pent-up frustration from years of losing that permeates the Tennessee football program. For him, that budding mentality and total program makeover was just another huge reason why he signed with Tennessee.

"I feel like that's been Coach Jones' main focus, which is why I really appreciated him as a coach," McKenzie said. "He was getting guys who really cared about the university, who really wanted to see Tennessee be a great football team.

"You have some coaches out there who want you on the team, but Coach Jones wants guys who really love the university and want to be a part of bringing Tennessee football back. It was really cool to see a coach who cared about the team and the university like that."

When Jones took over, UT had a loser mentality. The Vols had struggled to win for so long, the belief was gone.

That culture had to change, and it has. That first step was a big one, and it was completed with a TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Iowa that gave them their first winning record since 2009. The next step is getting guys like McKenzie to buy in.

From the time Jones got to Knoxville until now, the difference in the aura of confidence surrounding the program is immense.

"Monumental change," Jones said. "But that's a byproduct of the culture that's in place, but it's not fake. That's a direct byproduct of everyone's hard work and efforts, and it starts with our players first and foremost.

"I'm proud of our players…they've started to understand now the magnitude, the relevance of Tennessee football, what they represent, who they represent on a day-to-day basis, not just on the field but off the field, in the community and in the classroom."

McKenzie embodies all of that. 

Not only has he been ingrained with a love for the Vols that stems from having a father who played for UT alongside McKenzie's uncle Raleigh, he also is a football gym rat and a student of the game.

He's a kid who's grown up around football at its highest level, spending the first 16 years of his life in Green Bay as his father worked for the Packers and the past three in California with Reggie making all the key personnel decisions for the Raiders.

McKenzie witnessed firsthand what it takes to play at the highest level.

When it came to discussing the recruiting process, he talked with family friend Alonzo Highsmith, a Miami Hurricanes great and former NFL running back, as well as Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck.

Other brilliant football minds from which he's sought advice, he said, are family friends Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider, Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey, NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long, former Vol and current Oakland Director of Player Personnel Joey Clinkscales and several others. 

That's not to even mention his dad.

It's a reservoir of knowledge few players are fortunate to drink from, and McKenzie knows it. Perhaps having those resources and taking advantage of them help fuel his desire to be great.

"It's something that I definitely look at as a blessing," McKenzie said. "Being around football my whole life, I know what to expect in certain situations; I've talked to countless guys who've been through every single stage of the game: being a high school player, being a top-rated guy, being a non-rated guy, being just in the middle, what it takes to get to college and the NFL and that stuff.

"I've listened to all them and learned what it really takes to get to the NFL and what it takes to be great. So, it's a blessing. That's the only way I can really think about it."

Homecoming to a 'Second Home'

Even as an eighth grader, Kahlil McKenzie was bigger and better than everybody else.
Even as an eighth grader, Kahlil McKenzie was bigger and better than everybody else.(McKenzie Family Photo)

McKenzie will lean on that advice when he travels across the country to his new home. While Knoxville will be a new place for him to lay his head, it's certainly not unfamiliar territory.

His paternal grandfather still lives there, and he has other family in Knoxville and nearby Chattanooga.

Tennessee became a home away from home to him. When asked what he remembers most, McKenzie beamed about time spent with people he loves.

"Just being there with my family; just being able to hang with them in Knoxville," he said. "Really, once I started getting recruited is like the first time I really went to Tennessee as a college. But Knoxville is really like a second home to me, because I've been there so many times with family and stuff."

Though he said he only went to one UT game growing up because of other football obligations, his life was filled with influences from Tennessee and UCLA, his parents' alma maters.

Once he visited UT and got to know the players and coaches, he felt he had another family in Knoxville. Maybe it wasn't biological, but the bond was still deep. It just verified his ultimate decision made to attend UT, which he announced at The Opening last July.

The months following his commitment to Tennessee were rife with trials. 

His transfer to Clayton Valley Charter High School led to the North Coast Section ruling him ineligible for his senior season, a decision met with disappointment from his family, according to an official statement relayed by the San Jose Mercury-News' Stephanie Hammon

Like any family, we have always made decisions based on what's in the best interest of our children, according to our Christian values. The fact that a system would deny any child of his or her senior year, in any activity for which that student has a God-given passion, is highly disheartening.

McKenzie also tore a meniscus in his left knee, forcing him to rehab the injury.

Even so, the time away from football, he said, taught him valuable lessons as he learned to lead in other ways besides dominating on the field. 

"I started to look at all the blessings I was getting, and at the end of the season, I really learned what the true meaning of being a teammate was," he said. "Being on the sideline every single game, being at practice and knowing you can't go out there and help your team win football games really lets you know what it's like to be a true teammate, to be there for your team, encourage your team and do everything you can to help the team.

"But knowing that you aren't going to play, it makes you look at how blessed you are and it humbles you like you have no idea. Especially with an injury, too, on top of that, you go from, 'I couldn't play this one game,' to you could get injured and not play ever again. It's something like that that really opens your eyes, and you see what it really means to be part of a team and the sacrifices you have to make."

Despite not playing in a game for 13 months, he was invited to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl as one of the best players in the country. He consistently starred, leading 247Sports director of scouting Barton Simmons to tell GoVols247's Ryan Callahan that McKenzie was "dominant all week long."

Now, McKenzie is wrapping up the last few months of school, continuing to get back to full strength, and before long, he'll be heading to Knoxville to compete for a spot in the middle of UT's defense.

That side of the ball played with a chip on its shoulder for UT in 2014, but it still needed run-stuffing forces up front. 

McKenzie said he's ready to get in there and work to be that guy, and with the confidence pushing a young man that big and powerful who shouldn't be able to move that quickly, the sky is the limit to what he can do.

He hears the massive expectations being placed on his broad shoulders. While he can't control them, he can control what he does about them.

"You feel that pressure, yeah, but you just kind of learn to embrace it," McKenzie said. "You sort of accept it for what it is and know that you're just you and all that other stuff doesn't really matter. It's about what you do, it's about what you show, how you perform and how you work. That's how I look at it.

"I think Tennessee swagger is coming back. The guys who are there now, the work they are putting in, the will to win. It's no longer the Tennessee attitude 'If we win.' Now it's like, 'We're going to win.' That's how the guys there are working and that's how their mindset is. I can't wait to be a part of it honestly."

All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports composite rankings unless otherwise noted. All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted.

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

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