Havelock native has 20-straight starts at Tennessee

Stepping on the football field at Havelock High School, Kendal Vickers knew things were going to someday work out in his favor.

He figured he just had to put in the effort.

“Eventually, I knew things would work out for me, whether in high school or college,” said Vickers. “I knew that one day I was going to have my time in the spotlight.

“I’m just trying to take advantage of it.”

Vickers, listed at 6-foot-3, 295 pounds, is a redshirt junior with 20 starts at defensive tackle at Tennessee, an traditional powerhouse football program in the mighty Southeastern Conference.

He was a two or three-star recruit out of high school, depending which scouting report is followed, and played on the offensive and defensive line at Havelock.

Vickers, like a lot of high school students, had his ups and downs, all while helping the Rams win state championships in 2011 and 2012.

“It’s been a journey since I started playing football,” he said. “I’ve had my ups and downs in high school, and I tried to persevere from that. I try to be one of the hardest workers I can be. I think I’ve established that my first three years by being one of the hardest working guys and being persistent.”

With that hard work and perseverance, Vickers has established himself as a consistent starter on Tennessee’s defensive line.

He’s started all seven games this season, while racking up 19 tackles, 4.5 for a loss, with a sack and a forced fumble.

“I think it’s that I can be consistent,” Vickers said. “I have the coaches’ trust and the players’ respect. I try to be consistent in every aspect of my play, and I try to bring toughness to the defensive line.”

Vickers had a sack and forced a fumble in Tennessee’s 45-24 win over Virginia Tech in a game that was dubbed Battle at Bristol played at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn. on Sept. 10. That game attracted an NCAA record for most fans attending a college football game.

“I’m harder on myself than anybody. I just want to be the best player I can be, no matter what role I have,” Vickers said. “My role these past couple years have been pretty big. I try to be a leader of a group that works hard, and I think I’ve been doing that.”

Vickers redshirted his first year at Tennessee in 2013, played in five games as a redshirt freshman the following year. Since then, he’s been in the starting lineup for 20 consecutive games.

He notched 20 tackles last season that ended with the Volunteers motoring to 45-6 win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.

“I’ve been trying to make sure my body is in tip-top shape, just trying to make sure I know the ins and outs of my position of what I am supposed to be doing on every play,” Vickers said. “I try to get better physically and make sure I’m staying around the guys and gaining knowledge.”

Tennessee, at 5-2 overall and 2-2 in the SEC, is ranked 18th in the nation and is in prime position to win the East Division and compete for a spot in the championship game.

Vickers has worked diligently to make sure he’s not only a leader, but prepared to play each and every week.

“It’s such a hard conference to play in, everyone is good. Just knowing your assignment and technique, once you get that down, you can play faster,” he said. “I try to make sure I am in the film room to stay ahead of the game. At the end of the day, we all play to be great. I try to instill that in everybody.”

Tennessee has a bye week this week, a week after losing to Alabama, 49-10, in Knoxville. The Volunteers play at South Carolina next Saturday trying to snap their two-game losing streak.

“We want to be 1-0 this bye week. We want to get everything polished up for this stretch run,” Vickers said. “We are taking it one game at a time. If we do that, we are going to be in a spot that we want to be in.

“We aren’t going to get too ahead of ourselves. We know what’s at stake and we know we need to do to get everything done. This team is ready for it.”

The Volunteers have played with a “never give up” attitude. They pulled out a win over Appalachian State in overtime, then battled to the end against Ohio and rallied to beat Florida, ending their 11-game losing streak against the Gators.

Tennessee beat Georgia on a Hail Mary with no time remaining in regulation, and then rallied to tie Texas A&M late before ultimately losing, 45-38.

“It’s fun. This is the one of the grittiest teams I’ve been around,” Vickers said. “We have a never give up attitude. Through every game we’ve played this year, starting with App. State, things didn’t go our way, but we kept fighting and have showed that grittiness.

“It’s great to play with a bunch of guys that don’t give.”

Adam Thompson is the sports editor at the Sun Journal. He can be contacted at 252-635-5669. Follow Adam on Twitter @A_ThompsonNBSJ