Jonathan Kongbo working to grow comfortable on 'big stage' [video]

Tennessee defensive lineman Jonathan Kongbo returns an interception for a touchdown during last season's game against Missouri in Knoxville. Kongbo wasn't happy when he was moved from defensive end to defensive tackle last year, and he has been practicing at end again this spring.

KNOXVILLE - Brady Hoke wasn't around to see how Jonathan Kongbo responded to a late-season position change in 2016, but Tennessee's first-year defensive line coach has been briefed on the matter.

"Injuries forced him inside some," Hoke said Tuesday. "I don't think that was a love of his."

Kongbo's move from defensive end to defensive tackle provided another dramatic storyline to a rough stretch of Tennessee's 2016 season, and it added a layer of mystique to a player Hoke will need in 2017.

"Going into last year, I let it get to me too much, just the pressure and what everyone expected," Kongbo said Thursday. "It was definitely something on my mind coming in."

The expectations remain for Kongbo. The 6-foot-6, 270-pound redshirt junior is expected to help replace the production lost with the departures of Derek Barnett, LaTroy Lewis and Corey Vereen.

Hoke said Kongbo's increased maturity is allowing him to emerge as a player who could fill that gap in production left by the three departing ends. Kongbo acknowledged the learning curve associated with transferring from a junior college into one of the nation's most closely watched college football programs, which he referred to as a "big stage."

"I didn't realize how big of a deal people make things around here," Kongbo said. "I would say that was the biggest adjustment."

Kongbo said there were times when he didn't feel at home in Knoxville last season. When coaches moved him to defensive tackle late in the season due to injuries and a dismissal, it pushed Kongbo further out of his comfort zone.

He tweeted the day after Tennessee's loss to South Carolina that "all good things must come to an end," along with a photo of a pair of soccer cleats dangling against a wall. Attentive Volunteers fans immediately assumed it meant Kongbo was quitting.

Coach Butch Jones said soon after that Kongbo posted the tweet in reference to a video game. Kongbo reiterated that Thursday.

Either way, the social media post and fast reaction to it taught Kongbo a lesson.

"Without that, I'm not the player I am today," he said. "One part, I am to blame. It was kind of immaturity at times. As far as people's reactions, it's Tennessee, right? I should have known."

Picking up on the other side of that saga, Hoke, who arrived in February, pointed to Kongbo and Darrell Taylor as players who are performing well in spring practices. Kongbo is working as a defensive end as the April 22 Orange and White Game nears, but he said his experience as a defensive tackle helped him grow.

"I feel like I'm finally at home, like I've finally settled down," Kongbo said. "As far as maturing, I just know my environment and how to act around it."

Local ties to clinic

Three coaches with Chattanooga ties are scheduled to speak at the Tennessee Football Coaches Clinic.

First-year University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Tom Arth will speak at 11 this morning, and McCallie School coach Ralph Potter and former UTC assistant Will Healy, who is now the head coach at Austin Peay, will speak in the afternoon.

Coaches from dozens of high schools around the state and region watched Thursday's practice as the clinic began. They will stay through Saturday, when the Vols are set to scrimmage in Neyland Stadium.

Sequatchie County coach Adam Caine was in the group. He led the Indians to the Class 3A semifinals and a 13-1 record in 2016.

Circle showdown

Tennessee practiced indoors Thursday as rain pelted Knoxville, and the session began with the team's "Circle of Life" drill, in which Jones calls the names of two players over a microphone and they duel while surrounded by teammates.

The highlight was junior wide receiver Jauan Jennings quickly taking senior safety Todd Kelly Jr. to the ground.

Contact staff writer David Cobb at or 423-757-6249.