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VOL. 42 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 24, 2018

One last chance to live up to the hype

Fifth-year senior Kongbo still learning in only his sixth year of playing football

By Al Lesar

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Perspective can hit a young guy like a ton of bricks. Anytime. Anywhere. Just a couple weeks ago, Jonathan Kongbo was walking across a bridge, heading from the University of Tennessee campus to downtown Knoxville.

The Vols’ 6-foot-6, 250-pound redshirt senior outside linebacker glanced at the Sunsphere in the distance, the cityscape’s icon, and it dawned on him.

“I looked over at the ’sphere, (Neyland) stadium in the background, it made me think of the ups and downs and the roads that football has taken me on,” Kongbo says. “It’s been a blessed opportunity. I never thought I’d be in this position to have (the media around me); people interested in what I had to say.

“It’s unreal where sports can take you.”

From the Congo to Knoxville

Kongbo has traveled the war-torn roads of the Congo, where he was born and lived until he was age 5. He and his family found their way to Canada, as he accidentally stumbled into football his senior year of high school in Surrey, British Columbia.

That stumble came with a soft landing.

At a muscular 6-6 way back when, Kongbo had transferred to Holy Cross Regional High School to play basketball. It didn’t take long for the football coach to discover him and coax him out to the field.

Four games into the season, colleges from the United States and Canada took an interest in this neophyte. He settled on the University of Wyoming for the next stage of his journey.

After a redshirt season in Laramie, his next step was in Yuma, Arizona at Arizona Western College, where he became the No. 1 player in junior college football in his only season there.

It didn’t take much to attract former Tennessee coach Butch Jones to coax Kongbo into heading into the Southeastern Conference.

Finding a home

In 12 starts on the defensive line over his first two seasons on Rocky Top – 10 last season, two in 2016 – Kongbo has hardly been the dynamic impact player the Vols thought they were getting out of JUCO.

He has accumulated 40 tackles, 3.5 sacks and an interception that he returned 59 yards for a touchdown against Missouri two years ago.

Not quite numbers that are going to set the college football world afire.

On Sept. 1, he’ll be a key component of the Tennessee defense that will try to control West Virginia’s high-octane offense in Charlotte.

“The biggest thing I know now that I didn’t know (earlier in my career) was just keep chipping away,” Kongbo says of what he’s learned about survival within the Tennessee program. “Not every game is going to go perfect. You’re not going to have the best game every time out.

“You can’t let that carry on. Be in the moment. ‘OK, it’s over with.’ (I’ve learned) to move on to things quicker.”

Outfitted with that new attitude, and gifted a new position in the Vols’ rejuvenated defensive alignment, Kongbo is poised to live up to the hype that followed him to Knoxville.

When Tennessee is playing its base 3-4 defense, Kongbo will be lined up at outside linebacker. He’ll split time between pass coverage and pass rush. When the Vols slip into the 4-3 for certain situations, the big man will be taxed with harassing the quarterback and setting the edge to stop the run.

“I don’t think (the position switch is) as big a deal as people have made it out to be,” first-year Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt points out. “There’s not much difference (in the two positions). It’s all about figuring out how to get your best combination of guys on the field.”

New vantage point

Pruitt might downplay the significance of the move, but it hasn’t been lost on Kongbo.

“It’s the preparation,” Kongbo explains of his reason for preseason confidence. “We went through a grueling summer program. We spent a lot of time in the film room learning the ins and outs of the defense. I feel I’m very well-equipped, compared to the past.”

There also may be some mitigating factors at work. This is it for Kongbo; like it or not, his fifth year in college. There’s a sense of urgency that guys in this position start to feel about now.

“There’s no pressure,” he says, trying to downplay the situation. “You know you can ball, you can ball. Now it’s just time to execute. That’s all it is.”

Pruitt, a head coach with a definite lean toward the defense – given his history at Alabama, Florida State and Georgia – has been instrumental in bringing Kongbo along.

Lacking a football pedigree that can date back before puberty, Kongbo was somewhat of a blank slate when it came to learning new habits and a new position.

“You would assume (a position switch) would be harder for a guy with no experience,” Kongbo points out.

“What coach Pruitt does very well is that he’s a very, very good teacher. We spent all summer going over everything. By the time camp came around I knew the whole playbook.

“Preparation is key. I felt prepared. That took away a lot of the nervousness.”

He pointed to a time during 7-on-7 passing drills this summer when Pruitt made a subtle but very real impact on him.

“I had one of the coverages wrong,” Kongbo recalls. “(Pruitt) just came over and was very calm and very quiet, explaining to me that I need to do this and that. It was in a way that I couldn’t forget it. I wasn’t going to mess up the coverage anymore.”

A different culture

Kongbo didn’t spend any time critiquing what happened during last year’s 4-8 disaster, but he was quick to point out that the current regime is completely different.

On the field, it’s more of an “in your face” approach to defense that is bent on improving on the 22 sacks that were rung up a year ago. Off the field, it’s more of a self-government than it has been in the past.

“The culture is different,” Kongbo adds. “Like I keep telling my parents, this doesn’t even feel like the same place.

“Discipline and accountability now are at a whole new level. Even as players, we don’t back down or shy away from calling each other out anymore.”

That comes from the philosophy of the head coach and his staff. Pruitt’s time as a defensive assistant at some of the top football programs in the country has given him the appreciation and the wherewithal to focus on being a teacher first.

“The days are definitely longer, but no one’s complaining,” Kongbo adds of the instruction that happens on and off the field. “We’re getting so much quality knowledge out of it.

“I’m saying now, we’re football players.”

He didn’t elaborate on what they had been in the past.

Junior defensive back Baylen Buchanan echoes Kongbo’s appreciation for a head coach with a defensive background.

“Coach Pruitt is a very smart coach,” Buchanan says. “He knows football. He is making everybody on the defense smarter. Having a defensive-minded coach makes everyone more aggressive and physical.”

That sort of situation agrees with Kongbo – and gives him a head start toward the best season of his career.

“I’m having a blast,” Kongbo says. “I’m living my best life.

“It’s nice having your head coach as a defensive-minded person. You get the nice meeting room… It’s been good.

“I feel like myself again. Anything (the coaches) want me to do, I’ll do it.”

His journey is far from over.

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