By Alex Norman
Tennessee’s football program is no stranger to the NFL Draft. Following the 2018 player selection, 357 Vols have been picked by the pros. This year, three former were taken, bringing the total up to nine over the past two years.
In the third round, defensive back Rashaan Gaulden was picked by the Carolina Panthers (85th overall).
For Gaulden, getting picked by Carolina not only means a manageable drive from the mid-state for friends and family in Spring Hill, but a reunion with former Tennessee defensive line coach Brady Hoke, who holds the same position with the Panthers.
“This game is all about relationships. Coach Hoke his first year there… for some reason we hit it off right away… you never know where you’ll end up. Being here on the same team as Coach Hoke… God makes no mistakes. It’s pretty awesome.”
The Panthers are expecting Gaulden to make an impact right away. “From what I’ve been told I’m gonna have the opportunity to play safety, and be able to compete for a job,” said Gaulden. “The big thing as a rookie is you want to get familiar with the calls, the plays and to be able to have that head start going into rookie mini-camp.”
Carolina would like to see Gaulden get on the field in other areas as well. Gaulden sounds like a player willing to do whatever he is asked. “Being able to play special teams at a high level,” he said. “I’m a big special teams guy. Whatever role I’m given, I’m going to excel in that role.”
Gaulden played all over the field on defense in Knoxville, seeing time at cornerback, nickelback and safety. “That really made the game a lot slower for me,” he said.
As a junior, Gaulden collected 65 tackles during what was an awful 2017 season for Tennessee. In three years, he made 140 tackles (Gaulden missed all of 2015 due to injury). If you watched Gaulden during his time with the Vols, you know what the Panthers are getting. “The physical portion of my game, I like to thrive on that also being a ballhawk getting the ball out any chance I get,” Gaulden said.
In the sixth round, the Los Angeles Rams took running back John Kelly (176th overall). Last season, Kelly rushed for 778 yards and scored nine touchdowns. Those numbers were lessened as the Vols offensive line got decimated by injury. Kelly could have returned to Tennessee for his senior year, but the career span of a running back is typically short. Kelly made the call to leave Knoxville while still having a lot of miles left on his cleats.
“I definitely felt confident in the decision,” Kelly told reporters during a conference call. “That’s why I made it. I weighed out the pros and the cons of it and I felt comfortable with forgoing my senior season and taking my next step in my football process. I mean it just landed me a job with the Rams, so I feel like I made a good decision. I’m blessed.”
The comparisons between Kelly and former Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara are plentiful. Kamara had a breakout rookie season for the New Orleans Saints.
“I just wanted to show my versatility in the game. I got a chance to learn from guys like Alvin, and just do work with the receivers and everything. I definitely just wanted to be able to incorporate the route running and pass-catching in my game because I know it translates to the league. So, I was just blessed to have a guy like Alvin that was able to show me how to perfect my craft on that.”
Also in the sixth round, the third and final Vol was selected, when defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie was picked by the Kansas City Chiefs (198th overall). It’s an interesting selection as Kahlil’s father, Reggie, is the general manager of the Oakland Raiders, the Chiefs’ AFC West rivals.
“I can’t believe I am a Kansas City Chief.” Said Kahlil McKenzie. “This is what I have worked for and dreamed of since I was a kid. My father and uncle (Raleigh) paved the way, and now, it’s my turn. Thank you so much to everyone who believed in me and helped me get to today, but the work has just begun. Kansas City, let’s get to work.”
McKenzie is expected to move over to the other side of the football, where he will try to make the Chiefs roster as an offensive guard.
Other former Vols were signed to NFL free agent deals. That list includes linebacker Colton Jumper (New Orleans Saints), offensive lineman Brett Kendrick (Detroit Lions), defensive tackle Kendal Vickers (Pittsburgh Steelers) and tight end Ethan Wolf (Tennessee Titans).