Kahlil McKenzie


KNOXVILLE -- In a little more than two weeks, Kahlil McKenzie will trade the hill for "The Hill."

And one of the biggest recruiting prizes Tennessee has landed in the past few years will swap his status as a five-star prospect for the life of a college freshman.

As one would expect, the big defensive tackle is excited to begin his career with the Volunteers after a long wait through the recruiting process, his commitment last July and signing day in February.

High hopes and greater expectations surround McKenzie's awaited arrival as he continues the Tennessee legacy started in the 1980s by his father, Reggie, and uncle, Raleigh. But the only standard that matters is his own.

"I hold myself to probably a higher standard than anyone, probably outside of my dad," he told the Times Free Press last week. "I like to hold myself very accountable. I like to go out and earn things and prove people right or wrong. I want to prove people right for that five-star rating. You want to prove people wrong who say you're not.

"That's the main focus of mine, and those are my own expectations. I'm going to come in, and it's going to be a nose-to-the-ground kind of grind. I want to get myself in good shape so I can start putting in some work and trying to contribute to this team and help us win some games next season."

McKenzie has been too busy working hard -- with his focus on losing weight and improving conditioning -- to count down the days until his June 8 arrival in Knoxville. After weighing in at 350 pounds at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio in January, McKenzie is down to 337 and within reach of his goal of 330 when he gets to Tennessee.

McKenzie knows to expect a tough transition from high school to college, where tougher workouts, a different academic schedule and a more complicated playbook await.

"That's been the No. 1 thing for me, is making sure I'm in shape coming in, that I did enough strength work so the adjustment period would be as quick as possible, from getting from high school shape to college shape and being able to not just get through workouts but excel in workouts," he said.

"That's really just been my main focus, to make sure my transition period is as short as possible. That way I can get in and get to work and start grinding away and be in the best shape possible for the summer and training camp."

In his weightlifting class, practices for Clayton Valley Charter's track and field team, workouts with a personal trainer and the hill he runs multiple times a week, McKenzie is preparing as much as he can to get his Tennessee career off to a good start.

McKenzie said he has run up the hill -- which he jokingly refers to as his girlfriend, Vols coach Butch Jones revealed during a recent Big Orange Caravan stop -- around 100 times in recent weeks.

He recently posted a picture of the hill on his Twitter account, which has more than 22,400 followers.

"It's not super long, but it gets pretty steep and that makes it look longer," McKenzie said. "I usually run up about half of it, and you try and just stride that out. After that, your legs just refuse to work and you're just fighting to survive up the rest."

He called his twice-a-week workouts with personal trainer Justin Glorioso "the worst thing in the world," but he believes they should prepare him for tougher workouts at Tennessee.

Tougher treatment from the coaches await him as well, but he welcomes it.

"My dad is probably the hardest coach I've ever had, so I'm pretty used to that style of hard coaching," McKenzie said of his father, the general manager of the NFL's Oakland Raiders.

"My dad says I'm a little bit hard-headed in how I think, but I think that really helps me when somebody is really in my ear making sure, 'No, no, no, you're not doing it right,' and not someone that's going to let it go by.

"Sometimes in high school you don't play with the best technique and that kind of stuff, because you can get away with it being so much stronger and bigger than the other guys. In college, you can't do that stuff anymore. That'll be cool to see all the coaches get on me about all that kind of stuff and making sure I'm putting forth max effort and that kind of thing."

The external expectations for McKenzie won't change after he arrives. If anything, more eyes inside and outside of the program will be on his development through summer workouts and into training camp in August. It's no secret the Vols need contributions from McKenzie to bolster their defensive line.

He comes to Tennessee with an alpha-dog personality, however, and he won't lack the kind of confidence that borders on bold cockiness but is needed to handle the spotlight.

After all, this is a player who fired some Twitter barbs at Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze as the Vols were set to flip five-star offensive tackle and longtime Rebels commitment Drew Richmond just before signing day. McKenzie later apologized.

With the type of personality teammates will gravitate toward, McKenzie appears to have the "it" factor that should help him transition from can't-miss recruit to SEC star. His father believes he will give the effort needed to make that happen.

"He'll study it, he'll know his assignments and he'll play hard," Reggie told the Times Free Press in January. "I tell him, 'You know you're a good ballplayer -- you've always been -- and you know people are going to be looking at you to do your thing.' His expectations, he already understands it, and I don't see anything that's going to deter him from that.

"He's going to go in there with a right mindset, and he's going to understand that it's a clean slate when he comes in. It doesn't matter what kind of stars you've got behind your name. Everybody, when they get out there, you've got to prove yourself, and that's what his attitude will be like, but he also understands the pressures that's going to be placed on him."

As the start of his highly anticipated career looms, McKenzie remains level-headed about those pressures.

"I'm trying to help my team win games. That's my main focus," he said. "Whatever that means, that's my only goal for the three or four years I'm in college, to help my team win a national championship. Whatever I can do to make that happen, I'm going to do it.

"If that means playing every game, or if that means being scout team -- it doesn't matter. Whatever I can do to help my team win a national championship, that's what I'm going to do."

Contact Patrick Brown at