MOBILE, Ala. — After the first practice of the Senior Bowl on Tuesday afternoon, scouts from the Eagles, Ravens, Titans, Giants and 49ers peppered Villanova’s Tanoh Kpassagnon with questions. What’s his phone number? (Starts with 215). Does he have a girlfriend? (No). Did he drive a car in college? (No). What does he do in his free time? (Draw art). When asked about his favorite food, Kpassagnon went into detail about a dish his mother makes that includes a mix of spinach, kale and peanut butter from her native Uganda.
At the Senior Bowl practices, the size of a scouting crowd quizzing a prospect can often be an indicator of the buzz a player is accumulating. And there’s likely no prospect in Mobile with more intrigue than Kpassagnon, a defensive end who is 6’7”, 280 pounds and has arms long enough to dominate the backline of the Syracuse basketball team’s 2–3 zone.
One of the enduring allures of the build-up to the NFL draft comes from the emergence of players like Kpassagnon, a small-school wonder who suddenly captures the attention of the draft community. His presence isn’t a surprise to the men who spend 12 months a year scouring the country for prospects, as all 32 teams went through Villanova to study him this year.
But if there was a moment when a darling of the scouting community went mainstream, it happened at the Senior Bowl’s official weigh-in. During the awkward annual exercise, players are trotted out shirtless and wearing tights in front of executives. Kpassagnon has just 4% body fat, and his abs appear to have abs. So when he appeared before the masses, multiple NFL personnel men reported an audible gasp amid the crowd.
Multiple scouts told Sports Illustrated that Kpassagnon projects somewhere around the third round. But the Senior Bowl on Saturday and his inevitable freaky testing numbers at the NFL Combine make Kpassagnon the quintessential candidate to rocket up draft boards. “There’s a chance he ends up being the belle of the ball,” a scout told Sports Illustrated.
Not all small-school NFL draft stories follow the same narrative. There’s the highly productive (Northern Colorado’s Vincent Jackson), the overlooked (North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz), the dropdowns (Pittsburgh-to-Delaware transfer Joe Flacco) and the ostracized (Ohio State dismissed-turned Eastern Kentucky product Noah Spence). Sometimes, though, there’s a player like Kpassagnon who just bloomed late.
When Pittsburgh hosted Villanova to open the 2016 season, Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi watched Kpassagnon block a field goal and register two tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry. He ended up convinced Kpassagnon would play in the NFL and asked Sports Illustrated a question heard frequently around Mobile: “How did [Villanova] get him?”
The answer winds through Future Business Leaders of America association and an academic recruiting power play that would make Tony Soprano blush. In June of Kpassagnon’s junior year of high school, most of his peers scattered the northeast to attend one-day college camps and draw the attention of recruiters. But Kpassagnon spent much of the month in Orlando with a few of his friends, as they’d advanced to FBLA’s finals and worked on delivering a 40-minute presentation on business ethics. “It was sick,” Kpassagnon recalls with a smile.
Villanova assistant Mark Ferrante stopped by Wissahickon High, just north of Philadelphia, that spring to see one of Kpassagnon’s teammates. He bumped into an assistant coach, Larry Cannon, on his way out who asked him if he’d chat with a three-sport athlete whom the staff wished concentrated more on football. When Kpassagnon’s massive frame appeared in the hallway, Ferrante let out a similar gasp the NFL personnel executives did in Mobile this week.
Kpassagnon doesn’t remember that hallway encounter. But after running a 4.74 40-yard dash at Villanova’s one-day camp at the end up June, he recalls seeing Ferrante in the school as often as the lunch ladies. “After the one-day camp,” he laughs, “he was at school all the time.” Kpassagnon essentially earned a scholarship that day, showing a rare combination of speed, agility and size that leaves scouts with few logical comparisons. (Think a bigger version of Bengals pass rush specialist Carlos Dunlap minus the off-field character concerns).
Kpassagnon had no other scholarship offers in football. His size earned him some interest for basketball, but he didn’t have any concrete offers. (Villanova hoops associate head coach Baker Dunleavy said the staff evaluated him in high school and considered him a Division I player). When Villanova football offered soon after the camp, Kpassagnon’s mother, Winifred Wafuoyo, said they’d agree to it under one condition. She needed the school to guarantee admission to Villanova’s prestigious business school. Winifred works as a chemist in the Philadelphia area and Kpassagnon’s father, Patrice Kpassagnon Tagro, is an economist in the Ivory Coast. (They are divorced).
Villanova agreed, and Tanoh Kpassagnon earned degrees in finance and accounting during his five years.
On the field, his development came slowly. He redshirted his first year to put on weight—he arrived weighing around 240—and started his career as a tight end. By the time he became a junior, he’d switched to defensive end and grew into his body. Former UConn coach Bob Diaco recalls Kpassagnon “dominating our front” when the teams faced to open the 2015 season. By later that year against James Madison, Kpassagnon looked more fit for the SEC than the CAA. “He reminded me of the dudes that would line up on the edges for LSU,” said Brett Elliott, JMU’s former offensive coordinator who’d worked at Mississippi State the previous year.
By the time he became a senior, the compliments built to a hyperbolic level. For Villanova’s game against Albany, the press box overflowed with 15 NFL scouts. Delaware coach Danny Rocco calls him a “game wrecker,” and Towson coach Rob Ambrose termed him a “game breaker.”
Regardless of how they quantify the carnage, there’s no downplaying his impact. Kpassagnon finished last season with 21.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks, both of which placed him in the top 15 of the FCS standings. Ambrose summed up his prospects by saying, “there’s no hit or miss” with Kpassagno in the NFL: “At this level, yeah, he’s one of the best I’ve seen.”
How will that translate? So far at the Senior Bowl, Kpassagnon looks comfortable against the significant jump in competition, including torching highly regarded Western Kentucky tackle Forrest Lamp in a pass rush drill Tuesday. The questions about Kpassagnon revolve around his instincts. One scout joked there’s times on film he looks “like a puppy chasing cars.”
In an era when more teams in the NFL are taking on the NBA mentality of drafting on upside and potential—like the Giants drafting Eli Apple at No. 10 last year—a tantalizing aspect of Kpassagnon is that there’s more room to grow. His frame can hold at least 20 more pounds, and teams have to decide if his instincts can grow with him. “I have a way better feel for the game,” he says. “I think I’ve got better at it, like when guards are pulling, that’s the way the ball is definitely going.”
After the pack of scouts surrounding Kpassagnon broke away, they looked a bit awed at what they’d seen. Between his size, his maturity and his answers, the scouts walked away with full notebooks and raised eyebrows. For the most intriguing small-school player in the NFL Draft, the converts are appearing in droves.