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Tennessee defensive linemen Jonathan Kongbo (center) and LaTroy Lewis (right) stretch before the team's practice at Montgomery Bell Academy on Dec. 27. The Vols are in Nashville for the Music City Bowl, where they'll face Nebraska.

NASHVILLE -- With the signing day addition of Jonathan Kongbo this past February, Tennessee landed the crown jewel of its 2016 recruiting class.

Once the season rolled around, though, the five-star defensive lineman didn't deliver the kind of production to match the hype surrounding his potential.

Kongbo enters Friday's Music City Bowl clash with Nebraska with just seven tackles and one for loss in 12 games this season, and his interception-return touchdown in the fourth quarter against Missouri remains the highlight play of his first season with the Volunteers.

Read more about the 2016 Music City Bowl

Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop bragged about Kongbo's work during bowl practices this month, though, suggesting Kongbo might be turning a corner.

"One of the guys that's really stepped up and played exceptionally well the last few weeks is Jonathan Kongbo," Shoop said Thursday. "I've said that to you guys throughout the course of the season. I think we put some unrealistic expectations on him, a kid from Vancouver, British Columbia, by way of Laramie, Wyoming, by way of Yuma, Arizona, coming to the SEC.

"He's finally stepped inside and played his best football at the end of the year and he's practiced really, really well. I'm excited to see him."

Opportunities at defensive end were limited for Kongbo because he was playing behind All-American Derek Barnett and seniors Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis, and he was hesitant to move inside to defensive tackle despite constant urging from the coaching staff.

Even when Tennessee was decimated by injuries at tackle, Kongbo wasn't the first to volunteer to slide inside, though Lewis, junior Dimarya Mixon and sophomore Kyle Phillips did so without much of a fuss.

It took until the final two games of the regular season for Kongbo to make the move, and it's more likely he winds up playing there long-time than it is for some of the other defensive ends.

Tennessee is hoping the returns of Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle from injuries and Alexis Johnson's second year in the program will bolster the interior of the defensive line, but the Vols will have to roll with who's available on Friday against the Cornhuskers, who rank sixth in the Big Ten in rushing.

"Kendal Vickers has been a warrior throughout the course of the season," Shoop said. "Kyle Phillips continues to play inside and Quay Picou's practiced well, too. We're going to go with the guys that we've got. It's not like an NFL team where you have a practice squad of guys where you can get guys off the waiver wire.

"These guys have practiced really well, they understand the game plan and we're looking forward to going out tomorrow and playing our best."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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