Simply put, Tennessee has little to no chance of replacing former defensive end Derek Barnett this season with just one player. After Barnett registered more sacks in the history of Tennessee’s 120-year football program, in only three years of play no less, asking any one player on the roster to replace his massive production would be an unfair task to assign.
While that may be the case, you could argue that Tennessee has a lineman already on the roster with more physical potential than Barnett.
During his trip to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Volunteer head coach Butch Jones was asked to discuss his second-year defensive end Jonathan Kongbo. The former No. 1 rated overall junior college prospect in the nation certainly failed to live up to his immense hype coming into last season, but some of that could be contributed to being shifted to a new position on the defensive interior.
Considering he’d only played football for two seasons heading into the 2016 season, asking Kongbo to learn a new position appeared to have backfired on the Tennessee coaching staff. Now back to his natural position of defensive end, Jones sang the praises of the African native.
“He’s having as good of an offseason as any individual that we’ve had,” Jones said during an appearance on SportsCenter. “We are excited, he’s going to be one of the key players on this year’s football team.”
Jones didn’t stop there, however, as the Tennessee coach teased Kongbo’s ‘unlimited’ potential.
“You have an individual, in his stature, that works exceptionally hard. For him, it’s just continuing to improve day by day, week by week, but I think the sky is the limit for him,” Jones continued. “Jonathan can be as good as he wants to be.”
If what Jones is selling is accurate and Kongbo does indeed become one of Tennessee’s best players this season, the drop off from Barnett to Kongbo may not be as steep as many perceive heading into fall camp. The Tennessee staff clearly found a way to get the most out of Barnett over the last three seasons, if they are able to do the same with incredibly talented Kongbo moving forward, UT could start a new tradition of elite Rocky Top pass rushers.