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Tennessee's Rashaan Gaulden (7) and Kendal Vickers stop Vanderbilt's Ralph Webb (7) for a loss Saturday night.
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Tennessee's Kendal Vickers (39) tackles Florida's Jordan Scarlett (25). The Florida Gators visited the Tennessee Volunteers in a important SEC football contest at Neyland Stadium on September 24, 2016.

KNOXVILLE — There was no hesitation from Kendal Vickers.

He may not have even blinked.

The Tennessee defensive tackle was asked after Friday's practice if he was the toughest player on the team, and his answer came without equivocation.

"Yes."

Is there a close second?

"No," Vickers said with a laugh.

Given the season the Volunteers had at his position, it's hard to argue against him.

By the end of the October, four of Tennessee's top five defensive tackles were either gone or injured.

Senior starter Danny O'Brien was dismissed from the program shortly after an injury scare at Texas A&M. Promising sophomores Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle suffered season-ending injuries against Alabama and South Carolina. Junior college transfer Alexis Johnson sustained an injury when the Vols needed a big body the most.

Vickers basically was the only survivor.

"I'm surprised we were unfortunate to have all those injuries with Shy and Kahlil and all those guys," he said. "I try to take care of my body throughout the season and just make sure I'm not in the situation where I've got to get hurt or anything. It's definitely surprising, but I took the leadership role when all those guys went out.

"I think the guys that are coming in to play three-technique are doing a good job."

The fourth-year junior, who arrived on campus at 240 pounds and spent two years bulking up into a tackle, ranked third among Tennessee's defensive linemen in the regular season with 35 tackles. He had six tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble.

It seemed like every game Vickers would be down and require attention from the training staff after a play, but he rarely, if ever, missed a significant stretch of action.

With Tennessee forced to play multiple defensive ends inside, Vickers simply couldn't stay out of games long.

"Kendal Vickers is a warrior," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "I give him a lot of credit. This is a guy who played over 100 snaps against Missouri as a defensive lineman weighing 290 pounds. He's done everything we've asked him to do.

"Kyle Phillips has gone inside and been an unselfish person with regards to that. Jonathan Kongbo over the last three weeks played probably his best football of the year once he embraced and moved into playing three-technique. I'm very, very, very proud of him and appreciative of that. Quay Picou, the same thing."

Fixing Tennessee's defense starts with many players regaining their health, and both Tuttle and McKenzie are early in their respective roads to recovery.

McKenzie suffered a torn pectoral tendon and Tuttle a significant knee injury.

"Those two are goofballs anyways, so they're always energetic and all that, before the injury or now," Vickers said. "They're good. I try to talk to them and text them every now and then. We play video games together and all that stuff, and they're in good spirits and they'll be fine."

Derek Barnett, Tennessee's All-America defensive end, spent a lot of time with Tuttle during the team's down time between the Vanderbilt loss and the start of Music City Bowl practices this week.

Tuttle's health was a question mark heading into the season due to the serious injury he suffered against Georgia midway through his freshman season, and the Vols were devastated for him to suffer another one.

"His spirits are good," Barnett said. "He's been rehabbing hard every day. I just saw him after practice and he came out sweating. He just got done working out. He's working hard. I get motivation from him. Seeing him go through tough injuries like that, it makes me want to work harder because you never know when something like that can happen.

"His spirits are good, though, right now, and I'm proud of him because he's working hard."

Vickers was proud of himself for earning what he considers a lofty label from his defensive coordinator.

"It's awesome," he said. "That's the ultimate compliment to me. For somebody to call you tough or a warrior or whatever, that shows you're dedicated to what you do. You're playing for your teammates. That's what I always try to do, is just try to play for my teammates, the guys to the left and right of me."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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