KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee defensive end Jonathan Kongbo says he’s ready to live up to the hype that accompanied his arrival after a disappointing year that he describes as a “culture shock.”
Touted as one of the nation’s top junior-college recruits when he signed with Tennessee last year, Kongbo recorded just one sack last season. Kongbo, who was born in Congo and raised in Canada, acknowledges he struggled to deal with the expectations facing any heralded prospect in the Southeastern Conference.
“It was really hard because I feel like it’s put in your face sometimes here,” Kongbo said. “And obviously being new to it, being new to the South and how football’s treated here, it was definitely all a culture shock to me.”
Kongbo says he’s learned from the experience. Tennessee better hope that’s the case.
The Volunteers need someone to emerge as a pass rusher as they try to replace Philadelphia Eagles first-round draft pick Derek Barnett , who had 33 career sacks to break Reggie White’s school record .
Although Tennessee recorded 30 sacks as a team last year, only 6 ½ of them came from players currently on the roster. That’s why Tennessee needs Kongbo to deliver the production fans expected when he was rated the No. 1 junior-college prospect in the 2016 class according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports .
“As an athlete and as a competitor, this is what you want,” Kongbo said. “You want high expectations. You want people to expect a lot of you.”
Teammates and coaches believe he’s up for the challenge. Senior safety Todd Kelly Jr. says Kongbo has been one of the team’s hardest workers this offseason.
“Kongbo’s on a mission, man,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones says the biggest difference with Kongbo this year is in the pass rusher’s confidence level.
“He’s playing a lot faster,” Jones said. “That just comes with experience and repetitions. He’s worked very, very hard. He understands the standards and expectations.”
Kongbo is attempting to bounce back from a season in which his only sack came in a Music City Bowl victory over Nebraska , though he did score on a 59-yard interception return against Missouri . Kongbo didn’t respond particularly well after being asked to move inside due to injuries that decimated Tennessee’s depth at defensive tackle.
He got a lesson about the SEC spotlight the day after a stunning loss at South Carolina when he tweeted a picture of cleats with the message “All things must come to an end.” The tweet led to concern among fans that Kongbo was thinking about leaving the program, though Jones insisted afterward that the lineman was simply responding to a loss in a FIFA video game.
“There’s definitely moments throughout the year that were either speculations or things going on or what-not that I realized our every move is being watched,” Kongbo said. “But at the same time, it’s a good thing. As an athlete, you always want to be somewhere where you’re being critiqued to the extreme.”
Kongbo’s problems last year may have arisen from his relative unfamiliarity with the game.
He moved to Canada at the age of five and was primarily a basketball player until his principal talked him into joining the football team his senior year at Holy Cross High School in Surrey, British Columbia. Kongbo redshirted one year at Wyoming before transferring to Arizona Western College, where he recorded 11 sacks in 2015 and developed into a big-time prospect.
“I don’t like making excuses (and) I wouldn’t want to say it’s a big factor, but it had something to do with it, just being new to the game and being thrust into the SEC,” Kongbo said.
Now that he has a year of SEC experience and is back home at defensive end, Kongbo wants to make a bigger impact. While Tennessee has other promising defensive ends such as Darrell Taylor and Kyle Phillips, Kongbo arguably has the greatest upside.
“What I told Coach Shoop is I’m going to try to work this offseason the hardest I’ve worked my whole life,” Kongbo said. “That’s kind of been my approach every day.”
That doesn’t leave much time for playing video games or issuing cryptic tweets. He learned his lesson last fall.
“I haven’t played FIFA since,” Kongbo said.
Follow Steve Megargee at www.twitter.com/stevemegargee