Humbled by adversity, Kongbo says he's more mature, 'finally at home'

Jesse Simonton, Senior Writer
Vol Quest

Late last fall, an animated soccer match between Barcelona and Arsenal caused Jonathan Kongbo to turn into a Twitter hooligan.

A day after Tennessee’s brutal loss at South Carolina — one where Kongbo played sparingly — the defensive lineman sent out a cryptic tweet with a picture of cleats dangling by their laces, saying, “All things must come to an end.”

Rumors immediately swirled, as many fans assumed Kongbo — like star tailback Jalen Hurd — was quitting the team. The next day, coach Butch Jones came out and said his star recruit simply lost a FIFA video game.

It was a bizarre, albeit amazing explanation, with Kongbo addressing the controversy for the first time Thursday following the Vols latest spring practice.

“It was a good game of FIFA,” he said, smiling. “I lost, so I know not to take to Twitter when you’re upset.”

More than that, Kongbo learned a lesson in SEC scrutiny, realizing if he was going to truly tap into his unlimited potential he had to grow up a bit. The FIFA fiasco was simply one of many instances last fall where Tennessee’s mercurial defensive lineman caused a stir, but the former No. 1 JUCO recruit said the fireworks are over.

“They’re definitely important things to learn. And I think without it, I wouldn’t be the player I am today. I feel like on one part I’m to blame,” he said, in a moment of real candor.

“I was kind of immature at times. As far as people’s reactions, I mean, this is Tennessee, right? I should have known.”

But Kongbo didn’t know just how hard living in the spotlight at Tennessee would be. The ballyhooed recruit expected to waltz in and immediately make plays, but last season proved humbling, as Kongbo was forced to play another position and wait behind veterans like Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen. Burdened with unrealistic expectations, Kongbo said he “let it get to me too much, the pressure and what everyone expected.”

“I feel different coming in this year,” he explained. “I’m not really paying attention to all of that.”

Kongbo resisted playing defensive tackle for much of last year, but after his 59-yard pick-6 against Missouri, he felt like he’d turned a corner and finally belonged. He accepted his role and began to flash as a playmaker. He ended the season recording his first-career sack in the Vols bowl win over Nebraska.

“It was really the first game that I settled inside and felt comfortable. For me, it was a great boost and confidence and let me know that I could play at this level,” he said.



This spring, Kongbo has moved back outside to his natural position. He’s dropped roughly 20 pounds and showcased his explosive first step as a disruptive end. The hype continues since he’s tasked with replacing a potential first-round draft pick, but offensive line coach Walt Wells believes Kongbo is up for the challenge this time around.

“Now’s he practicing hard,” Wells said Thursday. “He’s always had a high motor and gone after things, but he’s practicing hard with a purpose now. He’s developing moves. He’s developing counter moves, and he’s playing hard in the run game.”

“It feels good [being back at end],” Kongbo said. “But honestly, playing inside, I got to learn a lot. I think it’s helped me step my game up, as far as like being more physical and things like that.”

It’s easy to forget that Kongbo is still relatively new to the game of football. He didn’t play the sport until his senior season of high school, and after stints at Wyoming and Arizona Western C.C., jumping to the SEC was a huge adjustment. It wasn’t simply the speed of the game, but “the details” and “the film work.”

The fact Kongbo was in another new environment — moving from the Congo, to Canada to Wyoming and then Arizona all in the last several years — made the adjustment even tougher.

But now, Kongbo “finally feels at home,” and is ready to “put his head down and go to work.”

“I feel like I’ve finally set down roots,” he said.

“There was a time last year where I didn’t really feel at home. But I’ve matured. I know my environment now. I know kind of how to act around here.

“It was all just a learning experience. There was times last year where it was really tough for me, but I think one thing I learned was just perseverance. Just to persevere and keep working hard.”

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