KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Jonathan Kongbo has been playing football for less than a single presidential term, but the former No. 1 overall junior-college prospect still came to Tennessee with epic expectations.
The 5-star recruit furthered the hype when he publicly declared the Volunteers would go undefeated in 2016 — this before ever rocking Orange and White in a single game.
So far, the redshirt sophomore’s first year at Tennessee has been up and down.
The 6-foot-6, 284-pound defensive lineman has just four tackles — zero in SEC games — but Kongbo has also quietly been Tennessee’s most efficient pass rusher not named Derek Barnett.
In a reserve role, Kongbo ranks third on the team in quarterback pressures (5), and coach Butch Jones anticipates a second-half surge by the sophomore.
“He’s settling in,” Jones said.
“We had a talk yesterday in the hallway. Just how much more comfortable he feels. Again, a lot of it is understanding the power of why. Why are we moving the front? Why are moving this way? Where is your gap fit or your control on the quarterback in the pocket?
“The game is starting to slow down for him. You can see the confidence evolving. Like he said, ‘Coach, I feel so much more comfortable. I feel at home now.’ To me, you’re going to see so much more of him just because of that comfort level.”
Kongbo possesses all the physical tools to develop into a dynamic and disruptive defensive lineman. As he continues to learn the game, Tennessee will add more to Kongbo’s plate.
Normally an end, Kongbo has played defensive tackle in some pass rushing situations this season, but with no more Kahlil McKenzie or Danny O’Brien, he could see an expanded role inside the last month of the year.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop dismissed any bust talk about Kongbo, saying the sophomore is still raw but is rapidly improving each week.
“I thought (the Alabama) game was his best game,” Shoop said.
“I think I saw someone write an article declaring him a success or not a success. I think the jury is still out on that. We’ve still got five games to go this year. Here’s a guy who’s still learning the game. I try to say that every week. The guy is from Canada, and get here via Vancouver, British Columbia, Laramie, Wyoming and Yuma, Arizona. He’s still figuring out the game.
“Be patient with him. He’s practiced better. He’s bought into the system. He’s trying to buy into our culture and kind of go forward.”