Barnett on Kongbo: 'He's going to help us this year'

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All Tennessee’s Darrin Kirkland Jr. needed to see was the weight-room session.

“He’s a grown man,” the sophomore linebacker said. “I’ve seen him lift — I’ve not actually seen him practice.

“He’s a grown man, a man amongst boys.”

Similar descriptions of Jonathan Kongbo have rolled in with predictable regularity this offseason. Ever since the Vols ultimately emerged with Scout’s No. 5 overall junior-college prospect on a dramatic 2016 National Signing Day, the 6-foot-6, 270-pound specimen has been widely penciled in as an immediate contributor along Tennessee’s talent-rich defensive line.

Monday, Kongbo made his training camp debut. The opening glimpse only added fuel.

It’s, in part, why Tennessee coach Butch Jones spent time pulling back the reins.

“Jonathan is very, very competitive, and he wants to do well — and for him, we have to be careful that we don’t put too much undo pressures upon him,” Jones said during Monday’s press conference. “And there is no pressure. You just have to work to get better every day. … If he can just (get 1-percent better every day), everything will take care of itself.

“So we have to be careful that we don’t put too many expectations on him and let him develop at his own pace and be patient. The great thing is our older players will help bring him along.”

That can be said for all newcomers. With a veteran-heavy squad that returns 17 starters from last season’s nine-win team, the chance for the newcomers to gain valuable knowledge is in abundance.

“When (veterans) correct you, that should mean something more so than anything,” Jones said. “I had (freshman quarterback) Jarrett Guarantano come up to me the other day and said, ‘Derek Barnett corrected me. He spoke to me.’ He said coach, ‘You don’t know how much that meant to me.’

“So these young players are welcoming that.”

The evidence has already started piling up.

“Really just their work ethic, just trying to learn and do everything to make the team a better team,” said Kirkland, assessing the positive aspects he’s already witnessed from the orange-clad newcomers. “So I’m just excited to see how they progress during camp.

“Really proud of (freshman safety) Nigel (Warrior), his can-do attitude, trying to learn everything as fast as he can. (Freshman linebacker Daniel) Bituli’s effort throughout the workouts, (he’s) just progressively working everyday.”

Along with Kongbo, Warrior is perhaps the most likely defensive newcomer to make an immediate impact. After getting looks at corner, Jones said Warrior has returned to safety, where he’ll make a strong push to earn a starting spot.

Fresh talent surfacing at wide receiver is also plausible. The Vols have just four significant contributors returning there — Josh Smith, Josh Malone, Jauan Jennings and Preston Williams — and have watched receiver injuries pile up significantly in recent years.

Newcomer candidates include freshmen Tyler Byrd, Marquez Callaway and Latrell Williams, as well as junior-college wide receiver Jeff George.

“If you look at a lot of times with younger skill players, some of the things that keep them out of playing early is ball security,” Jones said. “So being able to take care of the football, understanding their assignments, making sure that we don’t put a lot on them."

But the newcomer dialogue often seems to circle back to Kongbo.

The expectations likely aren’t simmering anytime soon.

“He looks good, still learning a lot of stuff,” Barnett said. “He’s just a raw talent right now, and he’s going to be a good ballplayer for us.

“He’s going to help us this year, everybody knows that in the room.”

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