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VOL. 41 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 28, 2017

Hits and misses in UT’s quest for junior college gold

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Defensive lineman Jonathan Kongbo, a rising junior, still has some work to do if he is going to live up to the expectations that followed him as the No. 1 junior college player in the nation.

-- Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Things were supposed to be so easy for Jonathan Kongbo. He arrived at the University of Tennessee last year as the No. 1-ranked junior college prospect in the nation. He had the combination of size and speed that everybody wants in a defensive lineman. The sky was the limit.

Then the season started. And nothing really happened.

Although he played in all 13 games, Kongbo started only two – the regular-season finale at Vanderbilt and the Music City Bowl against Nebraska. All told, he had 15 tackles and two quarterback sacks.

For all the great expectations, we should have seen it coming. The transition from junior college football to the SEC is like trying to catch a moving train. It takes some time to get up to speed.

“It was definitely a big learning experience coming in and never playing in the SEC,” Kongbo told reporters during UT’s spring practice. “It will definitely wake you up when you are there as far as going up against better athletes. …

“I think it was just a learning experience. There were times last year it was really tough for me. I think one thing I learned is perseverance and keep working hard.”

We’ve seen this over and over. UT has signed its fair share of junior college players over the years. A handful have made immediate impacts. Most needed at least a season to make the adjustment. And many never broke through for one reason or another.

For every Dale Carter or Charlie Garner, instant stars on the big stage, there are 10 Kenny O’Neals who fail to make it. That’s simply the way it works with junior college transfers. Regardless of what happened in junior college, it’s a different game in the SEC.

UT has had its share of hits over the years. In addition to a handful of junior college players that hit it big, the Vols have gotten solid production from a number of others, many of whom were recruited at positions of need.

The 1991 UT team featured four junior college transfers in starting roles – Carter at safety, defensive ends Chuck Smith and Chris Mims, and offensive tackle Bernard Dafney.

Tight end Mychal Rivera caught 76 passes for the Vols in two seasons after transferring from College of the Canyons in California in 2011. He’s currently playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Matt Simms played quarterback in 18 games for UT in the 2010 and ’11 seasons after spending a season at El Camino College in California.

Brothers Mike and Doug Furnas transferred to UT from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in the early ’80s. In 1982, Mike started at left guard and Doug at fullback. Doug Furnas later embarked on a lengthy career in professional wrestling. He died in 2012.

Most of the time, you hope to get two good seasons out of a junior college transfer. But there are exceptions.

Leonard Little played only one season of football at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, so he had three seasons of eligibility at UT. He certainly made the most of them, although the coaching staff’s decision to move him from defensive end to linebacker at the start of the 1997 season was a mistake.

On the other hand, Cordarrelle Patterson arrived at UT as the nation’s top-ranked junior college prospect.

He played only one season for the Vols before jumping to the NFL draft, where he was picked by Minnesota in the first round.

As for Kongbo, there is still time to make a major impact.

For all his physical gifts and recruiting rankings, we failed to take into consideration that he is still comparatively new to the game of football. He didn’t play until his senior year at Holy Cross High in Surrey, British Columbia. He began his college career at Wyoming and redshirted as a true freshman before transferring to Arizona Western College and then to UT.

“I let it get to me too much, the pressure and what everyone expected,” he said. “So, it definitely was something on my mind coming in. I feel different coming in this year. I am not really paying attention to all that.”

Kongbo clearly was frustrated by a lack of playing time and production during the 2016 season. He created a stir when a post on his Twitter account showed a pair of cleats hanging by their laces with the words “All things must come to an end” alongside.

Many wondered if he was quitting football or transferring elsewhere.

Kongbo explained that it was a reference to a video game he had lost.

Tennessee’s Leonard Little, right, shown sacking Ohio State quarterback Bobby Hoying, along with Steve White,  in the 1996 Citrus Bowl, was one of the Vols’ top junior college transfers. He is third on UT’s all-time sack list behind Derek Barnett and Reggie White with 28 in three seasons.

-- Ap Photo/Doug Mills

He also resisted a move from defensive end to tackle that was necessitated by UT’s rash of injuries at the position. His desire to play end is reflected in his loss of 20 pounds to about 265 pounds after playing at 285 last season.

Despite the overall struggles of 2016, Kongbo had his moments. Against Missouri, he intercepted a pass and returned it 59 yards for a touchdown.

Vols fans hope there is more where that came from.

And now for a little walk down Memory Lane. Here is my ranking of the top 10 junior college transfers at UT:

Dale Carter, 1990-91: After played two years at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa, Carter was a two-time All-America at UT as a safety and kick returner. Perhaps his most memorable play was a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on the first play of the second half of the 1990 UT-Florida game. Carter is the father of current Vols defensive back Nigel Warrior.

Leonard Little, 1995-97: With remarkable speed and quickness, Little had 28 sacks in 1995-97, ranking third on UT’s all-time list behind Derek Barnett and Reggie White. After being moved to middle linebacker to start the ’97 season, the coaching staff came to its senses and switched him back to his natural defensive end position.

Charlie Garner, 1992-93: Garner originally signed with Miami but wound up at Scottsdale Community College. After signing with UT, he started ahead of James Stewart and Aaron Hayden at tailback and ran for 2089 yards in two seasons, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

Chuck Smith, 1990-91: Although he was a bit undersized for a defensive end, Smith made up it with sideline-to-sideline speed and a relentless attitude. He was All-SEC in his senior season when he had nine sacks.

Jesse Mahelona, 2004-05: After spending two years at Orange Coast College in California, Mahelona made a splash upon arrival at UT, recording 18 and a half tackles for loss in an All-America season. He had an uncanny ability to diagnose the play and make the tackle.

Chris Mims, 1990-91: After bouncing between two junior colleges in Los Angeles, Mims signed with UT and started two seasons at defensive end, where he was All-SEC as a senior. He was a first-round draft pick by San Diego.

Alvin Kamara, 2015-16: After watching how Kamara performed when he got more touches last season, it’s hard to understand why he was behind Jalen Hurd on the depth chart. He had 312 all-purpose yards against Texas A&M. Kamara was equally effective as a runner and receiver.

Steve Alatorre, 1980-81: He was MVP of the 1981 Garden State Bowl when he threw for 315 yards and a touchdown. Alatorre played one season with the Montreal Concordes of the Canadian Football League.

Anthony Miller, 1987-88: After arriving from Pasadena City College, Miller averaging 18.5 yards per reception and scored five touchdowns in his first season. He would’ve had an even greater impact if he hadn’t suffered a knee injury in the ’88 opener that limited him all season.

Cordarrelle Patterson, 2012: He was the nation’s top-ranked junior college prospect at Hutchinson Community College and proved so explosive as a wide receiver/kick returner that he hopped into the NFL draft after one season with the Vols.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.