KNOXVILLE — Brady Hoke was working all the way across the country as Oregon’s defensive coordinator last season, so he wasn’t at Tennessee for Jonathan Kongbo’s drama-filled first season with the Vols.
Weeks into his new role as Tennessee’s defensive line coach, Hoke is caught up on what went on with Kongbo last season.
And he’s noticed a difference that’s helping the talented defensive end make the most of his first spring practice in the program.
“I think it’s maturity,” Hoke said after Tennessee wrapped up Tuesday’s practice. “I think it’s always hard. He’s a junior-college guy. He gets thrown in the mix. (He’s) a long way from home, even though he was a long way from home out in Arizona. I think just the different pieces and parts of a defense, the injuries forced him to go inside some. I don’t think that was a love of his, but I think just maturity.”
There certainly are higher hopes for Kongbo in his second season at Tennessee.
Expectations a season ago were perhaps too high for a player ranked by 247Sports as the top junior college prospect in the 2016 class, and his cryptic tweets and not-so-secret disdain for moving inside to defensive tackle — despite the Vols’ drastic need for tackles due to injuries and a dismissal — made it appear at times like Kongbo’s future at Tennessee was murky at best.
His late season buy-in and production — Kongbo returned an interception for a touchdown late in the win against Missouri and recorded four tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and two quarterback hurries in the Music City Bowl victory against Nebraska — provided hope for Kongbo’s future.
Working this spring at his more natural position at end, Kongbo will be a key figure to Tennessee’s defense in 2017 as the Vols try to find a way to replace the production of the departed trio of All-American Derek Barnett and valuable veterans in Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis.
As Tennessee looks toward rebuilding its pass rush, Hoke has been impressed by what he’s seen this spring from Kongbo and Darrell Taylor off the edge and defensive tackle Quay Picou from the interior.
“I think Jonathan and Darrell, those two guys have done a good job,” Hoke said. “They’re not where we want to be yet in some ways. I think Quay has done some things from a penetrate-and-puncturing the line of scrimmage. Some of those things have been a positive.”