During the 2016 recruiting cycle, Jonathan Kongbo was one of the most sought-after prospects in the country despite only having played football for a couple seasons. The junior college defensive end looked like a physical freak, and he had all the raw athleticism any college coach could want in a future defensive lineman.
Kongbo eventually signed with the Vols, and hype around him was astronomical in his first year with Tennessee. Fans hoped Kongbo would be a productive counterpart to Derek Barnett at defensive end.
But after injuries piled up along the defensive line, Kongbo was asked to move inside to play defensive tackle. And he wasn’t thrilled about it at first.
“I fought (moving inside) for a while,” Kongo told reporters Friday, “but once I did it, it wasn’t actually too bad. I told Coach Jones I could do it again this year.
“I think the fear of not playing from the side came from me not really knowing what was going on. But with a year under my belt, I feel a lot more comfortable.”
Kongbo is now back at his natural position at defensive end, and he’s a favorite to land a starting spot along Tennessee’s defensive line. But Kongbo said what he learned last year was “to be more persistent” heading into this season.
“There were times in life when things weren’t always going my way or I wasn’t having what I wanted at times,” Kongo stated. “But I want to keep working and not to get too down or too hard on myself and look at the positives.
“I remember last year Derek (Barnett) didn’t have a sack until about the fourth game, against Florida I believe. And that just showed me that you have to keep working and be more persistent and not let little things bother you.”
Last season, the Vols were able to rely on Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen at defensive end. The two combined for 20 sacks and 30.5 tackles for loss in 2016. Both those players are gone, and now Kongbo will be one of the defensive ends tasked with replacing that production. But he’s not worried about those expectations.
“As an athlete, as a competitor, that’s always what you want,” Kongbo said of the expectations facing him this year. “You want high expectations, you want people to expect a lot out of you.”
Kongbo isn’t the only defensive end with higher expectations placed on them for the Vols this year, though. Redshirt sophomore Darrell Taylor and junior Kyle Phillips will also be asked to step up at defensive end. And Kongbo thinks they can handle the pressure too.
“I think we can be as good as we want to be,” Kongbo said of himself and his fellow defensive ends. “We all have the physical attributes. Obviously we’re young and a little inexperienced. But I think they’ll handle themselves.”
Kongbo enters this season with 11 tackles, one sack, and three tackles for loss in 13 games played last season. He also intercepted a pass and returned it 59 yards for a touchdown against Missouri. Kongbo finally seemed more comfortable and adjusted later in the season last year, and Vol fans hope that’s carried over to this year.
And if Kongbo’s words are to be trusted, then that attitude and persistence has, indeed, followed him into the 2017 season.