McKenzie eager to continue family heroics with Vols

McKenzie eager to continue family heroics with Vols

February 1st, 2015 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

KNOXVILLE -- In a recruiting class full of accolades, plenty of little golden stars and lofty rankings, Kahlil McKenzie is perched at the top.

And that's where the big defensive tackle wants to take the Tennessee Volunteers.

"My goal is to contribute in whatever way I can to help Tennessee win a national championship," McKenzie said. "That's kind of my one goal that basically gets all my other goals inside of it. That's how I look at it: Contribute whatever way I can to help us win a national championship, and that'll cover all the personal goals I have for myself and all the team goals."

First things first, though.

Kahlil McKenzie

Kahlil McKenzie

Wednesday, McKenzie will accomplish something he's worked toward for a long time when he signs with Tennessee. It will be, as he called it during a phone interview with the Times Free Press on Friday, a culmination of his hard work. Understandably, the 6-foot-3, 354-pounder from California is excited about it.

It'll be pretty special for his father, too.

Now the general manager of the Oakland Raiders, Reggie McKenzie grew up in Knoxville and starred at Austin-East High School before playing for four years at Tennessee and going on to the NFL.

"It's always a very exciting moment when, not only is your son going to college, but he's going to college to a great program like Tennessee and my alma mater," Reggie said Thursday afternoon.

"It makes for a great event, really, when he signs that piece of paper. No question, I think all of that just adds to it ... that he's going to the school (where) I played football and received my scholarship and being my hometown. It has a lot of variables that make it much more exciting for the family."

For all of his family ties to Tennessee and the Vols, Kahlil McKenzie took a roundabout route to get there.

Starring at seven

There's growing up in a football family, and there's being born three weeks before the franchise that employs your father wins a Super Bowl, but that's what happened with the McKenzies.

Reggie worked in the front office of the Green Bay Packers in 1996 when Brett Favre led them past the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans. Kahlil, born three weeks earlier, sat in the lap of his mom, June, at the game.

At ages 4 and 5, Kahlil was playing flag football and attending football camps, including one Reggie and his brother, Raleigh, who also played Tennessee, held in Knoxville.

"He couldn't have been no more than 4 when he got the taste of running around on the field and being around ex-Tennessee players and stuff like that," Reggie said. "I think the only thing he knew about it is that's where Daddy went to school. He didn't go to a game until during his middle school time.

"He kind of got a little taste of what it was like on game day when I took the family to a game one time."

Kahlil, who has two older sisters (Jasmin and Mahkayla) and a younger brother (Elijah), recalled seeing a Tennessee-Kentucky game when he was younger, but he didn't know exactly how old he was.

"I've been to Knoxville more times than I can count," said Kahlil, the third-ranked player in the 2015 class, according to 247Sports.com. "I was thinking about it: I had never really been to campus until the whole recruiting stuff started. I'd been going to Knoxville my whole life with my grandpa there and all that kind of stuff, but never really got on campus."

Reggie believed his son had a chance at a successful football career long before he received his first recruiting letter or scholarship offer.

Kahlil, who played baseball, soccer and basketball in addition to football while growing up, was 7 years old and in his first season playing Pop Warner football.

"Once he got the pads on and he loved physical contact, I knew, OK, he won't be scared to hit anybody or get hit," Reggie said. "He played defensive line there, and about the third game of the season they put him at tailback. He ended up busting his first run for 65 yards for a touchdown."

'Larger than life'

After more than a decade with the Packers, Reggie McKenzie was hired as the Raiders' GM a little more than three years ago, and his family moved from Wisconsin out to California.

Kahlil, who was 6-2 and 255 pounds as a high school freshman, played two years at Southwest High School in Green Bay before playing his junior season at De La Salle in Concord, Calif., a football powerhouse known for producing major talent.

"When he came out to California his junior year," Reggie said, "and got a chance to play with some guys that were being recruited and saw a lot of the college scouts, college coaches and stuff come out and watch practice, I think he learned how to work in practice.

"He saw where some sophomores were getting scholarship offers, and he was like, 'Man, I don't have any.' They didn't know who he was out in California after being in Green Bay all the time.

"When they started coming in droves, it hit him, and I told him it was coming. I had to let him know: He was a little bit over 6-foot-3 at 316 pounds -- 'Guys like you don't grow on trees.'"

As the recruiting attention began to swell, Reggie took a businesslike approach with his son. He didn't want to monitor his son's every move, but he wanted Kahlil to evaluate the program rather than make a choice based on a coach or player. Once Kahlil made up his mind, he was going to stick with his decision.

Seeing Kahlil develop into a superstar recruit was an adjustment for his parents, particularly as the media attention began to increase with his lofty status.

"I'd get all kinds of texts and emails and phone calls," Reggie said. "I can't believe that's little Kahlil -- well, he was never little, but that's young Kahlil that everybody's talking about. It's kind of morphed into a larger-than-life kind of deal, but I'm extremely proud of the big fellow."

'Felt like home'

Deep down, Reggie hoped his son would pick Tennessee. If the Vols recruited Kahlil, Reggie asked that he take a visit and see what they had to offer. Tennessee offered Kahlil a scholarship midway through his junior year, and the McKenzies took a visit to Knoxville the following April.

Upon arrival, Reggie had a message for coach Butch Jones and his staff.

"'Y'all get it done,'" he said. "'It's out of my hands.' I told him, 'It's on you guys.'

"They did a great job of showing him what it would be like to be a Tennessee Vol. From A to Z, I think they hit on every point. He let me know that he really liked his visit at Tennessee. That was the first time that I felt real good that it's a strong possibility that he's coming to Tennessee."

The Vols increased their chances of landing the five-star prospect with a creative tactic involving Tennessee bucket hats.

"I was at practice one day for track and field, and (Jones) called me and he was like, 'I've got something cool I think you might like, and I'm going to start it today until the day you commit,'" Kahlil recalled.

Jones would snap a picture of a bucket hat in various places on campus and in Tennessee's football complex -- on top of the 1998 national championship trophy, next to a picture of his father and uncle or next to a Raiders helmet -- and send it to McKenzie, who often shared them on his Twitter account.

"That was pretty cool," Kahlil said. "I wasn't expecting that at all. It was pretty original."

Kahlil committed to Tennessee in July at The Opening, an all-star camp at Nike's headquarters in Oregon.

"The commitment day was awesome," he said. "It was my brother's birthday, so it was a really fun day. I was really happy about it, to get the commitment out the way and that kind of stuff.

"Tennessee, it felt like home for me. I just really felt at home with it all and the coaches and the players, the city -- everything. It was the perfect fit for me."

After watching his son grow up liking Oklahoma because of Adrian Peterson and Wisconsin, then his home-state program, Reggie was glad to see his son pick his alma mater.

"Butch and his staff, in the recruiting process, I thought they did an excellent job," he said. "They really took the work out of my hands. I didn't have to work as hard to recruit my own son to go there."

Great expectations

After leaving De La Salle for Clayton Valley, Kahlil was ruled inelgible by the California Interscholastic Federation and couldn't play his senior year.

Kahlil validated his five-star status with a strong showing at The Opening, and he showed no signs of rust during a week of practices for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio about a month ago and played well during the showcase game.

After having to sit out, he went to Texas with something to prove.

"My mindset is always to improve myself every single day and every single week and every single game," Kahlil said. "That's how I approach things. Yeah, I felt like the spotlight was definitely on me, and I thought performed well all week for not playing for 13 months. I played well in the game.

"Now I'm just getting ready to be in Knoxville and getting ready to get out there and earn that jersey and start working and be able to contribute."

Reggie makes his living off evaluating football players, and he admitted he isn't big into recruiting stars.

Those stars, though, are going to be the biggest reason his son will join the Vols with impossibly high expectations. Even as a freshman playing against NFL-bound SEC linemen, Kahlil will be expected to be an immediate-impact program-changer. Fair or not, it's what comes with being a five-star recruit.

"His nature, just the way he is, he puts a lot on his own shoulders," Reggie said. "He really expects to be great. He's not overconfident or anything like that, but he really thinks he can play. He knows what he is. He knows he's a big, powerful football player that's got a little athleticism. He knows what he is as a player, and he doesn't like to let people down.

"He'll have that inner drive, that inner competitive attitude about him that he's going to do everything in his power to be the best he can."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.


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