KNOXVILLE — It took nearly all of his first season at Tennessee for Jonathan Kongbo to buy into playing a new position.
His immediate future with the Volunteers will be back at his old position.
The talented junior college transfer played inside at defensive tackle at the end of last season, when he returned an interception for a touchdown to cap off the win against Missouri and provided a continual disruptive presence in the Music City Bowl victory, but he'll return to defensive end for Tennessee's spring practice, which begins this afternoon.
"Right now we want him to go into spring football solely focusing on the defensive end position," Vols coach Butch Jones said Monday, "but I think the experience that he gained of having to move inside last year will really benefit him. It allows us some flexibility within our defensive schemes to be able to move him around.
"It's finding the right 11 to put on the field — whether it's offense, defense or special teams — that give you an opportunity to win, but he's going to play mainly defensive end."
The Vols will be shorthanded on the defensive line this spring, but the bigger long-term question might be at end, where Tennessee is replacing All-American Derek Barnett and two productive seniors in Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis.
"You just don't replace them," Jones said. "You don't replace their productivity. You don't replace their leadership. Those individuals grew up in our football program, and they did a great job and they're going to be very highly successful at the next level as well. That's going to be a development position throughout the spring."
Jones said he's been "very encouraged" by the offseason Darrell Taylor has had, while it's also an important few weeks for the oft-injured Austin Smith, redshirt freshman Mykelle McDaniel and freshman Deandre Johnson.
Offensive lineman Trey Smith was ranked as the top player in the 2017 class by ESPN, and he quickly began impressing those around the program after enrolling at Tennessee in January.
Jones understandably began tempering expectations for the 6-foot-6, 313-pound five-star recruit.
"Trey's had a very, very productive offseason," Jones said. "What we've come to find out about Trey Smith in a very short period of time is he's extremely competitive. He's very, very driven, but again, he's a young man that has not (played) one snap at the collegiate level.
"I think it's way too early to place any expectations on him, and I think he'd be the first to tell you that, but from what I've seen from an intangible standpoint is very, very impressive."
Jones tried to curtail the number of questions about Tennessee's quarterback competition by addressing it in his opening remarks, and he said there would be no timetable on identifying a starter there or at any other position.
"To me, we're all competing," he said. "Every job is open. It'll be a very, very competitive spring."
The most important competition, however, is at quarterback between Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano, and Jones said the key factors will be staying steady after good and bad plays, managing the offense and getting it into the right plays, displaying leadership and, above all else, consistency.
"I would say the big thing is going to be consistency day in and day out and just compete," he added. "I think when you just compete on a daily basis, you're going to improve each and every day. That's what we want to see, is constant growth and improvement."
' At least eight players are unavailable for spring practice. Jones listed those as defensive backs Micah Abernathy and Rashaan Gaulden; defensive linemen Kendal Vickers, Shy Tuttle and Kyle Phillips; offensive lineman Brett Kendrick; and wide receivers Brandon Johnson and Josh Smith. Others will be limited or under careful management.
' Jones singled out defensive tackle Quay Picou as one player who made the most of offseason workouts.
"(He's) one of the individuals who's really, really surpassed all of his personal goals," he said. "I'm excited to see him transfer all the gains that he's made in the strength and conditioning area onto the field."
' Despite the absences on both sides of the ball, Jones made it clear the Vols won't sacrifice their efforts toward re-establishing the kind of toughness and edge last season's team seemed to lack.
"We cannot compromise our physicality as a football team, nor will we this spring," Jones said, "and that is vital that we become a much more physical football team and much more explosive football team."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.