MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia linebacker Lee Kpogba is determined to make everything he can from his second shot at Division I football.
After two seasons at Syracuse (following an earlier commitment to West Virginia before flipping to the Orange when WVU went through a coaching change), things soured in upstate New York for the native of Ghana, who played his high school football in North Carolina.
He was suspended from the ‘Cuse after playing in 22 games over the 2019 and 2020 seasons, and he was forced to try to work his way back via the junior college route, enrolling at East Mississippi Community College for the 2021 season. That served as a wake-up call for the enthusiastic linebacker, who hasn’t been shy in discussing what he has learned from a trip to the nether regions of the collegiate game.
“Junior college was definitely a different experience for me.” he said of his time at EMCC, which was the subject of the first two seasons of the documentary “Last Chance U,” that has taken a look at three different junior college programs from 2016-20. “Being out there in Scooba, Mississippi, there isn’t anything but football. It helped me stay locked in and really made me appreciate the game much more and some of the things I had in my life.”
While Kpogba’s time at EMCC came after the Last Chance U cameras had moved on, he was a viewer of the series.
“Last Chance U was pretty accurate, and (what I experienced) aligned with the series pretty well,” he confirmed.
Many participants at the junior college level have problems adjusting or working through the challenges juco football presents, especially those who have experienced more supportive (and much better-funded) programs in Division I. There are success stories, though, and Kpogba looks to be on track to follow that path.
“The workouts there were tough, mentally, and it made me tougher, so it was a good experience for me.”
He walked that walk at EMCC, earning all-conference, all-state and all-region honors while racking up 84 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and two sacks in 2021 while helping the Lions to a 9-1 record and a national No. 7 slot in the juco ranks. He isn’t resting on those laurels, though, as his experience has shown him just how quickly one can go from the top of the heap to a struggle for positioning. Thus, when he came to West Virginia for spring practice in 2022, he approached it with the same attitude he did when grinding away in relative anonymity at EMCC.
“Showing everybody what I was about, that I am ready to work and compete for a position,” he detailed of the way in which he entered WVU’s spring drills. “I feel like I have done that, and I am going to make the most of it.”
Mountaineer coaches, including head man Neal Brown, defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley and position coach Jeff Koonz, all noted Kpogba’s aggressive play and fly-around-the-field style.
“Lee is playing well,” Koonz said during spring practice. “I’m excited about the dimension he brings to the defense. he’s physical. He enjoys the game. His love for the game is contagious.”
Those words of praise are good to hear, but Kpogba takes them more for their motivational value as for any sign that he’s “arrived.”
“It definitely pushes me further, because at the end of the day I am trying to push myself to be the best player I can possibly be. Hearing the coaches say that, it just makes me want to go harder,” he expanded. “If the coaches are noticing it, then my teammates are noticing it, and I want them to have faith in me and feel like they can rely on me.”
Kpogba will be WVU’s starting middle backer this fall, and in addition to striking power and physical play, he also brings more speed to the position. West Virginia has battled an overall lack of that quality on the second level of the defense in recent seasons, and he, along with Exree Loe, Lance Dixon and Jared Bartlett, hope to bring better pursuit and quicker arrival to the ball.
“Speed at linebacker is always a good thing,” he said with a smile, perhaps envisioning the chasing down of opposing ballcarriers or quicker arrivals in the backfield. “We are going to be able to be able to take advantage of that.”
Also improving for the older, wiser linebacker is his understanding of the game, and his ability to share what he sees and knows with his teammates. While the speed at which he plays and his tackling abilities have clearly stood out this spring, it’s one of those supporting qualities that he counts as most important.
“I like my communication when it comes to the game. I feel like I can be vocal on the field, help people get to the line and get the defense ready. I am starting to understand the defense better. I don’t have it all down to a ‘T’ yet; there are still things I am working on. Overall, I like the scheme, and I understand the defense.”