Five for '15: Tennessee Vols' impact freshmen

Five for '15: Tennessee Vols' impact freshmen

July 29th, 2015 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Offensive tackle Drew Richmond from Memphis University School is one of the freshmen who could play a lot for Tennessee this season.

Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

KNOXVILLE -- With the Tennessee Volunteers nearing the start of preseason football practice next week, the Times Free Press is setting the stage for a much-anticipated 2015 season with a "Five for '15" preview series, which continues today with a look at some freshmen who could make an immediate impact for Tennessee.

1. DT KAHLIL MCKENZIE

The Vols are going to need freshmen McKenzie, the five-star recruit who was ranked by Rivals.com as the naton's top defensive tackle and No. 6 overall player, and Shy Tuttle to help strengthen the interior of the defensive line, where Danny O'Brien and Owen Williams are the only returning experienced players.

After enrolling in January, Tuttle got as many reps in spring practice as he could handle, and Tennessee was encouraged by how he progressed over the course of those weeks in March and April.

Kahlil McKenzie

Kahlil McKenzie

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

McKenzie didn't have the same luxury, but he worked hard on his conditioning and showed up on campus this summer right around 330 pounds, his target weight. He'll have to knock off some rust after not playing his senior year of high school, but after he demonstrated his combination of power and speed at a couple of camps last summer and a January all-star game, many recruiting analysts believed he was a can't-miss prospect.

There will be adjustments — technique, leverage and playing through fatigue, to name a few — but McKenzie has the size, ability, confidence and drive to live up to the lofty expectations he's facing.

"He's a big dude," defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt said at SEC Media Days. "His calves are huge, man. He's hungry to learn. Any time I tell him something, or any time we talk, it's eye contact and ears open. It's something you can respect."

2. OT DREW RICHMOND

Tennessee capped its 2015 recruiting class with a late flip of Richmond from Ole Miss, and the five-star recruit out of Memphis headlines a five-linemen haul that the Vols believe has a promising future.

The 6-foot-5, 310-pound Richmond played right tackle in high school, and that's likely where he'll begin his Tennessee career. To break into the starting lineup, Richmond will have to beat out third-year sophomore Brett Kendrick, who started two games last season and made impressive progress during the spring. Richmond's goal will be to win a starting job.

Top-tier tackle prospects, such as Cam Robinson (Alabama) last season, Laremy Tunsil (Ole Miss) in 2013 and D.J. Humphries (Florida) and John Theus (Georgia) in 2012, have become immediate starters in the SEC in recent years.

Richmond, the nation's No. 2 tackle prospect, could be the next in line among that group, but he'll have to win a starting job as opposed to being forced into one, as the Vols have had to do with freshman offensive linemen in recent seasons.

3. LB DARRIN KIRKLAND JR.

Kirkland and his photographic memory would have been a major contender in the middle linebacker competition in spring practice if not for a torn pectoral muscle that forced him to sit out those practices.

With the job still up for grabs, Kirkland remains a factor there, and he could be the answer in the middle of Tennessee's defense. At 6-2 and 235 pounds, he has the prototypical frame for a middle linebacker. The four-star recruit had all spring to learn the defense and adapt to the playbook.

The other freshman linebackers have impressed this summer, but Quart'e Sapp is an outside linebacker and Austin Smith has been working in Maggitt's hybrid role. Both of those players should have shots to contribute on special teams. Kirkland appears the most likely to help on defense, and he could even start there with a strong August.

4. WR PRESTON WILLIAMS

Williams is a bit of a wild card given his health, but he could bring a nice boost to Tennessee's receiving corps if the 6-4, 180-pound five-star prospect bounces back from a torn ACL he suffered late last fall.

Butch Jones suggested in May that Williams wouldn't be able to start preseason camp, but the update Tennessee's head coach gave at SEC Media Days earlier this month on the wideout was more encouraging.

Hillsboro's defensive end Kyle Phillips is all smiles after defeating Springfield 41-7. Phillips will attend the University of Tennessee.

Hillsboro's defensive end Kyle Phillips is all smiles...

Photo by The Tennessean

"I would guess right now he's probably 75 to 80 percent," Jones said. "He'll be one of those individuals that will start practice. Now we have to do a great job of monitoring him. We have a training-camp plan in place for him."

Even if Williams isn't able to contribute until a month or so into the season, he's got enough talent, if healthy, to give the Vols an extra weapon in the passing game.

5. DE KYLE PHILLIPS

The five-star prospect out of Nashville was one of the many players who sat out spring practice. He underwent shoulder surgery shortly after arriving in Knoxville.

Thus training camp will be his first chance to show Tennessee's coaches what he can do with and against college players. In Maggitt, Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis, Phillips may have a tough path to consistent playing time at defensive end. He has enough upside, though, that he could carve out a spot in the rotation if he's healthy enough to put a strong camp together.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com


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