KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — “Role” was the word of the day in the defensive meeting room, and Tennessee coordinator Bob Shoop only can hope that incoming junior college star Jonathan Kongbo let it sink in.
Shoop is known for creating ideal matchups for his defenses, particularly the safeties and the defensive linemen.
One of the keys, Shoop revealed, is “positional flexibility.”
Penn State’s Carl Nassib, a 6-foot-7, 272-pounder, was a moving target for offenses to prepare for under Shoop. Nassib set a school record with 15.5 sacks and forced six fumbles en route to winning the Lombardi and Hendricks awards last season.
Ohio State, meanwhile, used All-American defensive lineman Joey Bosa (6-5, 269) inside and out the past two seasons with great success.
Kongbo, a 6-6, 282-pounder with a rare blend of size, length, power and speed, likely has not studied Shoop’s concepts or history that closely.
Kongbo is talented, but the 20-year-old Congo native did not play football until his senior year of high school in British Columbia, and his college experience is limited between two brief stops at Wyoming and Arizona Western.
That could explain why Kongbo took to Twitter on Wednesday night to express what appeared to be dissatisfaction about the possibility of taking some reps at defensive tackle.
"Play inside for a little bit" pic.twitter.com/5egzV4YvZJ
— Jonathan Kongbo (@Kongbo_1) August 10, 2016
So the timing was good for Todd Kelly Jr’s team message, which Shoop said was for players to “understand your role, do your job.”
Shoop pulled aside Kongbo on Thursday to explain why he’ll get some repetitions at defensive tackle as well as defensive end.
“Johnathan and I, literally, before I came down here were having this conversation about all the different things that he can do,” Shoop said. “I’m not going to ask him to do 25 different things. It’s do two things really well in a game.”
Kongbo isn’t the only UT end who will see repetitions inside at times this season. Dimarya Mixon (6-4, 260) and Kyle Phillips (6-4, 259) also will have opportunities.
First-team All-SEC end Derek Barnett (6-3, 265) has done it in the past in a package that lined him up on the same side as former UT linebacker Curt Maggitt.
Shoop has the same philosophy in the secondary, with safeties and nicklebacks considered interchangeable.
That sort of positional flexibility makes it more difficult for offenses to game plan and create and dictate matchups, as they’re unaware which defensive back is playing what role on game day.
Shoop points out it takes a special athlete to handle multiple responsibilities.
“Present it with the LeBron James analogy,” Shoop said, “that he can play the one, two, three, four or five.
“Well, hey Johnathan, we think the weak link is the guard, maybe we’ll put you in a position where you can take advantage of the matchup there. If the weak link is the end, maybe we can put you and Corey (Vereen) on the same side, or you and Barnett on the same side so they can’t slide a protection one way or another.”
Shoop said his success — five straight Top 25 units at undermanned Vanderbilt and Penn State — is “personnel-based, not scheme-based; it’s identifying what players do well and putting them in position to be successful.”
His success is also about players buying in, and only time will tell if Kongbo is completely on board with playing his role.
Kongbo, who wore a green no-contact jersey on Thursday, is not scheduled to be available to the media at today’s Tennessee Media Day activity.
UT fans answered Kongbo’s curious tweets with messages that seemed to support the Vols’ coaching staff.
@Kongbo_1 Playing both = More NFL ??
— Drew (@Mobius22_) August 10, 2016
@Kongbo_1 the great ones do it all. See Reggie White.
— MBAVol (@MBAvol) August 10, 2016
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s SEC Country and is based in Knoxville.