From Villanova to Super Bowl, Tanoh Kpassagnon Takes Flight
He has a name that takes practice to pronounce, and even still it is a mouthful to say. More importantly, Tanoh Kpassagnon is becoming increasingly difficult for NFL offensive lines to block.
Scores of Eagles fans across the Philadelphia region will root for Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs to win Super Bowl LIV on Sunday, but there will be large pockets of them who will cheer the Chiefs for another reason, and that is because of Kpassagnon.
A three-sport standout at a suburban high school before going on to play for Villanova University, Kpassagnon took him some time to decide that football was for him. He excelled in throwing the discus in track and field and basketball at Wissahickon High School, which is in Ambler, about a half-hour’s drive from Villanova’s campus just outside of Philadelphia.
Now, Kpassagnon has become the name most likely to be misspelled and mispronounced in a Super Bowl since Halapoulivaati Vaitai lined up at left tackle for the Eagles in place of Jason Peters in Super Bowl LII.
If Kansas City beats the San Francisco 49ers, Kpassagnon will become the first player from Villanova to win a Super Bowl team since Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Howie Long did it with the Oakland Raiders. Oakland beat the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl LVIII on Jan. 22, 1984 in a game where Barry Manilow sang the National Anthem and Bronco Nagurski worked the coin toss.
The last Villanovan to play in the Super Bowl was Ray Ventrone in Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3, 2008, with the New England Patriots, who lost to the New York Giants.
Kansas City drafted Kpassagnon in the second round of the 2017 draft, the 59 player taken overall. He was the sixth defensive end taken that year, and one of those was the Eagles’ Derek Barnett, who went 14 overall.
Kpassagnon has four sacks this season and has played 62 percent of the Chiefs’ defensive snaps.
Already, he has had better production than two defensive ends taken in the first round: Charles Harris (Miami) and Taco Charlton (Dallas and now Miami). Even Solomon Thomas (49ers) hasn’t played up to the level of being the third player taken overall. The other defensive end picked ahead of Kpassagnon was DeMarcus Walker, who went to Denver, the 51 player taken overall.
Kpassagnon’s ceiling is still probably very high, mainly because he had a long way to go.
His mother is Ugandan and his father, who is remarried, still lives on the Ivory Coast. He redshirted his freshman year after showing up at Villanova’s football camp in the summer before his senior year of high school standing 6-7, weighing 240 pounds and running a sub 4.8 40-yard dash.
Mark Ferrante, now Villanova’s head football coach after joining former longtime head coach Andy Talley’s staff in 1987, recruited Kpassagnon.
“I think when things really clicked for him was his redshirt sophomore year, his third year in our program,” said Ferrante. “I think that’s when he started catching up, his maturity mentally started catching up to his physical maturity and he actually missed a couple games that year.
“I think missing a couple games made him realize how much he missed it. From that point forward, his last two years he was a pretty dominant player.”
NFL scouts found their way to Villanova’s campus. None of them were from Kansas City.
“When the Chiefs took him in the second round, it was almost a surprise to everybody,” said Ferrante. “Not that it was a surprise that he went in the second round because some teams maybe had him draft-able late first round, but the fact that the Chiefs took him as opposed to maybe some of the other teams that, on the surface, seemed to be showing more interest, because the Chiefs, according to Tanoh and the agency that represents him, the Chiefs did not have a ton of communication with him pre-draft.”
Villanova isn’t one of those football factories like the SEC or any other major college conference on the country and isn’t even Division I in football. It is an FCS school.
There are five Villanovans on NFL rosters. The last player the drafted into the NFL prior to Kssapagnon was Ben Ijalana, who the Colts took in the second round of the 2011 draft.
Brian Westbrook is one of the more famous draft picks out of Villanova, at least for Eagles fans, when Philly picked the running back in the third round of the 2002 draft.
“The difference between Tanoh and Ijalana and Vetrone, Westrook and all those guys, when they got here, they all played as freshmen, so they were further along with the game of football,” said Ferrante. “More mentally than anything else, because they’re all physical gifted, we know that.
“Tanoh didn’t play as a freshman, he redshirted, so it took him longer from the football player maturation, not the physical part as much as the mental part, so where he is today, obviously, he stacks up with all those guys favorably. Where he was as a 17, 18-year-old young man, not quite.”
Now listed at 289 pounds, Kpassagnon is finally showing what he is capable of. He played just 14 percent of Kansas City’s defensive snaps as a rookie and only 10 percent last year, but a change in defensive coordinators, with Kansas City replacing Bob Sutton with Steve Spagnuolo, has Kpassagnon playing more of his natural position at defensive end, rather than a backup at to Justin Houston at outside linebacker in Sutton’s 3-4 defense.
“They have him playing the correct position,” said Ferrante. “He’s kind of where he belongs. He’s back with his hand being in the ground being a defensive lineman. That’s why he’s been more productive this year, because he’s in more of his natural position.”
The production doesn’t figure to stop now for Kpassagnon. Nor do the mispronunciations and misspellings of his name.