Draft

Kahlil McKenzie’s Vols days are over – but could Jeremy Pruitt have made a difference?

Kahlil McKenzie Outback Bowl 2015 season
KIM KLEMENT/USA TODAY SPORTS

Kahlil McKenzie’s decision to bypass 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 season of high school football because of a transfer issue. That was the first warning sign. McKenzie’s development also was surely hampered by the change of his position coaches; Steve Stripling moved to an administrative role and was replaced by Brady Hoke as the defensive line coach.

RELATED: As Georgia has shown (to the chagrin of Tennessee), the hiring means more than the firing

But 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 coach/de facto defensive coordinator and Chris Rumph and Tracy Rocker on board as assistants. McKenzie surely would have benefited from another year and this one with the new coaching staff.

But herein lies part of the problem in hiring Pruitt. UT’s next coach is working double duty.

He is the defensive coordinator for Alabama as the Tide plays 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 who really had little reason to make the jump: McKenzie, running back John Kelly and defensive back Rashaan Gaulden. None are blue-chip NFL prospects and each likely would start for the Vols next season.

McKenzie should wow personnel folks ar the NFL Scouting Combine with his athleticism. He’ll have insight from his father, Reggie, 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.

But other players overcame Jones and were productive at UT. Former defensive end Derek Barnett comes to mind. McKenzie couldn’t do that. He had 36 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks and a pass breakup as a junior this season. Those numbers don’t exactly jump off the stat sheet.

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