KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop opened fall training camp by acknowledging his players are determined not to repeat 2016.
After a second half full of mounting injuries and head-scratching yardage totals, it’s impossible to miss the chip the Vols are carrying.
“What I can tell you is since the bowl preparation, throughout January and spring football and through the summer, I’ve been coaching a long time and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of guys with a bigger chip on their shoulders and more determined,” Shoop said.
“They’ve put themselves in position to be a really good unit and a really good team in 2017.”
The microscope will focus on the revamped defensive line.
The name brands are gone. Tennessee’s all-time sack leader Derek Barnett declared early for the NFL. Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis have graduated.
It’s time for others to make their name.
Returning are defensive ends Jonathan Kongbo, Darrell Taylor, Kyle Phillips and defensive tackles Khalil McKenzie, Shy Tuttle, Quay Picou, Alexis Johnson and Kendal Vickers.
Newcomers Eric Crosby, Kivon Bennett, Matthew Butler, Ryan Thaxton and Deandre Johnson want to carve out a spot on the depth chart.
“Any time freshmen come in, it’s always an adjustment period, but they look good,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Kendal Vickers said. “Those young guys want to learn and they always want to get one of the older guy’s opinions on something.
“As long as they want to learn, want to get better, and as long as they are trying, that’s all we can ask for.”
Team 121 will feature multiple looks and rotations, featuring a variety of defensive tackles.
“I think there is a lot of versatility between all of us,” Vickers said. “Kahlil (McKenzie) can play the 1, the nose, the 3 technique, the 2 and me as well. I had to play it all last year because it seemed I was the only D-tackle left. There’s a lot of versatility between the guys and I think it’s going to help us be better.”
McKenzie has worked his way into being ready for the 2017 season.
“Everybody is hungry,” McKenzie said. “Everybody was ready to be back out there. There were guys flying around and screaming. Guys were doing flips during practice. Everyone was excited and ready to be back out here.”
McKenzie is also embracing his role of a leader.
“I told them to focus on the details and the little stuff,” he said. “Get better little bit by little bit. You don’t have to bite off the whole thing at once. Just take it step-by-step.
“The first game isn’t until September 4. Come out tomorrow and work on something you messed up today. It’s all about continuous improvement.”
That day-by-day approach that he took in rehabbing from a pectoral injury that ended his season last October is what has him ready to go for the upcoming season.
And now he feels “100 percent” and is “having fun and trying to contribute to the team.”
His play was getting better before the season-ending injury against Alabama.
“You never want to say you turned a corner or anything like that,” McKenzie said. “But on the rise, feeling good – then you get hurt.
“It’s all in God’s plan. You work through it, get through it, now I’m back.”
His maturity, once again, is highlighted by his steadied discipline in working to get back into game shape.
“Working through it as time came, weights came, it just came naturally,” McKenzie said. “Increasing as it comes, not trying to rush things. Not trying to be a super hero out there. Just letting it come to me instead of trying to attack things too much.”
Now the defensive lineman looks like he is in his best shape during his Tennessee tenure.
“It’s a lot easier to move,” McKenzie said of his agility. “You want to be quick twitch, things like that. It’s attention to details and all that stuff, and you can do that more. You can be more detailed-oriented when you’re in better shape. Pre-snap identification – all that stuff – it just comes a whole lot easier.”
Redshirt sophomore Darrell Taylor will also be looked upon to step up. Nobody is picking Tennessee to win the East, in part because of all of the new faces. He feels like the unit is ready to perform.
“I feel like we’re lying in the grass, waiting to strike,” Taylor said. “Our team’s not talked about as much now, so I feel like we’re just waiting for our opportunity to shine. We’re going to do what we’ve got to do to get there.
“I think we’re all pretty focused. Guys have been waiting their turn. We’ve just been putting in the work in the weight room, film room and studying all the plays, trying to get right. Everybody’s just waiting to attack.”