Rocky Top Talk’s most important players countdown for the 2018 season continues! If you have missed the previous 3 players, you can get caught up right here.
The seventh most important player for the 2018 Vols, as voted on by our staff, is OLB Jonathan Kongbo. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “oh great, here we go again, another preseason article about how this will be Kongbo’s breakout season.” I totally understand that reaction. The honest truth is this: I don’t know if this year will be the breakout year for Kongbo that fans have been expecting from the former No. 1 ranked JUCO prospect. And, my guess is that no one else — not even the coaching staff — knows either. What I do know is that this year will be different, and I’ll do my best to make a case for why that makes him a very important piece for the Vols this season.
We all know the history. Kongbo was the #1 ranked junior college player coming out of Arizona Western College - a premier JUCO - as a defensive end. He had offers from virtually everywhere, including Florida, Auburn, and Alabama before committing to Tennessee as part of the talented 2016 recruiting class, which ranked 14th nationally (according to 247Sports). His highlight tape was filled with big hits and edge pressure as Kongbo aligned in a variety of 3-man and 4-man fronts. All of this led to lofty expectations that Kongbo would come to Knoxville and be a major contributor for Bob Shoop’s 4-2-5 defense. Unfortunately, he just hasn’t met those high expectations. In one season at Arizona Western Kongbo totaled 55 tackles with 11 sacks. This is in contrast to his 40 total tackles and 3.5 sacks in two seasons at Tennessee.
Is Jonathan Kongbo simply not the player that we were collectively led to believe? I honestly do not think that is the case. I think he is an exceptionally talented player. The issue has been that during his two seasons at Tennessee he has been asked to play a role that in my opinion has emphasized his weaknesses. Jonathan is naturally an edge rushing defensive end. In 2016, however, the Vols were already set at the defensive end positions, returning one of the greatest defensive lineman in Tennessee history in Derek Barnett as well as senior Corey Vereen. The defensive coaching staff, to their credit, recognized Kongbo’s talent and truly did their best to get him on the field. Unfortunately, this meant playing him frequently as a 3-technique defensive tackle (see below).
Theoretically, it is a great idea to get all of your best players on the field at one time. Practically, it doesn’t always work out very well. A 3-technique defensive tackle means a player positioned over the outside shoulder of an offensive guard. Essentially, Kongbo was moved from his natural edge position to an interior defensive line position at an undersized 260lbs. He was forced to take on double teams at the point of attack and take up space, which is definitely not his game.
In 2017, with the departure of Barnett and Vereen, Kongbo was moved back out to the defensive end position. Naturally his numbers improved. His total tackles more than doubled and he had 1.5 more sacks than the previous year. Unfortunately, as we all know, the defense as a whole did not improve but regressed in a major way. Kongbo wasn’t a major factor rushing the passer because, quite frankly, teams didn’t need to pass on Tennessee. They could run it right at our 125th ranked rushing defense (out of 129 schools) and be just fine. Interestingly, there were actually instances where Kongbo was asked to drop into coverage from his defensive end position to defend the pass. It goes without saying that this isn’t exactly his game, either.
This year I am expecting Jonathan to be playing a position that gives him a much better chance to be successful. We should be seeing him at the “Jack” position. This is the same position that Anfernee Jennings played for Alabama last season. This player is generally lined up to the weak-side when the defense is in their nickel package, which is expected to be the majority of the time. To play this position a player needs to be able to play the edge both from a stand-up and down position, as Jennings demonstrates below on Alabama’s first two defensive plays last season.
The player at the “Jack” position needs to be able to hold the edge in the run game, and get after the quarterback in the passing game. Kongbo should be much better against the run from this outside position than he was in 2016 from an interior spot. Also, I expect that he will be a much improved rusher considering he will be coming often from the weak-side where he will presumably get more favorable one-on-one matchups.
Finally, although middle linebacker is essentially settled, outside linebacker is much more up for grabs. Jordan Allen, Darrell Taylor, Austin Smith, and ultra-talented newcomer JJ Peterson all could be competing for reps at the outside linebacker spots. However, none of those players have as much game experience at the Division-1 level than Kongbo.
Although this will be the 3rd position, and 3rd position coach, for Kongbo in his 3rd season on Rocky Top this may finally be the right combination. Will he “breakout” in terms of statistics? Who knows at this point. What he can do is provide game experience at a position more naturally suited to his style of play. And for that reason Jonathan Kongbo is our 7th most important Vol for 2018.