DEAN KENEFICK, Villanova's associate athletic director of communications, had a problem. Two weeks ago, when the Wildcats hosted Albany, he wasn't sure he'd have enough room in the press box for everybody who wanted a seat. That wasn't because of the matchup, even though it happened to be a good one. Instead it had everything to do with fifth-year senior defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon, whose presence had some dozen or so NFL talent evaluators descending upon the Main Line to take notes.
That was hardly the first time. Multiple scouts have regularly been showing up at practice too. That's the way this game works. It just doesn't always happen at the FCS level. This is the most interest a Villanova player has generated since Brian Westbrook. And that was 15 years ago.
It's a good problem to have.
"I don't make too much of it," said Kpassagnon, in his understated way. "I try not to think too far ahead. Taking care of the little things will take care of the big things later on. I know there's, like, eyes on me now. It doesn't really mean there's added pressure. It's kind of like motivation. I never feel like I've made it yet. I feel like I'm lucky to be where I'm at."
There was a time when he didn't even know if he wanted to keep playing football. He didn't start until he was in the seventh grade, after moving here from North Carolina. He also competed in basketball and track at Wissahickon High. Villanova took a chance on him, since he only weighed about 220 pounds. But it was on a 6-7 frame. These days he's listed at 290. And scouts think he can still add another 10 or 15 pounds without losing anything speedwise.
"He looks like he's 250," said one scout. "There's a long way to go. He's about to start the longest job interview of his life. But he looks to be one of those guys who's going to work every day to maximize his ability. Right now nobody really has any idea what his final value on the (draft) board is going to be. As he continues to develop, physically and mentally, I think he's got a good shot at playing (in the league).
"When you're an athletic guy who's that size, it at least gets you in the door. He's done a good job putting himself in this position. I think the most important thing is his football character. He's got a lot of upside."
Kpassagnon (pronounced tawn-o pass-N-yo) has spent much of this season in opponents' backfields, for a 6-2 team (4-1 Colonial Athletic Association) that's ranked 10th going into Saturday afternoon's always-dangerous trip to Maine (5-3, 4-1), which hasn't lost since late September. He has 15 tackles for losses and 7 1/2 sacks, but the numbers only begin to tell his story. He's the defender other teams have to plan for. Not that you'd ever know it listening to him talk.
"Among his teammates, he has that star status," said defensive line coach Joe Trainer. "They'll bust his chops about it in the locker room. 'Hey, Mr. NFL.' But he'll just tell you how the other guys did a great job of protecting me. He's equipped to handle it . . .
"His intangibles are through the roof. He knows a lot of things have to happen, but he can almost taste it. He believes he belongs at the next level. He's started to figure this whole thing out. The greatest thing he has going for him is his consistency. That's just the way he approaches life. He's going to get better. He has the makeup. The work ethic matches the skill. And he has humility. So how bad does he want it?
"He had an internship in the summer. So he was getting up at 4:30 to be here at 5:30 because he had to leave workouts early. Just stay hungry and keep grinding."
Kpassagnon, who's made the CAA all-academic team the last three years, graduated in May with a finance degree and is currently pursuing another one in accounting. He's had two job offers in the corporate world. But that part of his journey will have to wait.
"My junior year of high school, a lot of my friends quit the team," he recalled. "It wasn't that great of a team. My d-line coach was like, 'C'mon, just stick it out. You're a good player. I know you like playing.' He told me not to be a sheep and just follow everyone else. That really stuck in my head. He encouraged me to really continue. He said he could see me being a great college player, and maybe even playing on Sundays. I think it was more like a joke, but now that possibility is more real. Coach (Andy) Talley told me that too. I kind of didn't believe him. I still just worked hard. If you feel like you want to do something you should give 100 percent. Or else there's no reason to do it.
"My mom didn't want me to play. She thought it was too dangerous. Eventually she found out and said as long as I kept my grades up it was OK. I've tried to take advantage of every opportunity that's come to me. The thing is, now I really appreciate football. It's definitely given me structure, a purpose. If it's going to give me an opportunity to do even greater things, that's awesome."
First, though, he's trying to take the retiring Talley as far as possible. Then he can get on with his future, whatever that might turn out to be.
"Maybe playing at this level builds that toughness, like you have something to prove," Kpassagnon reasoned. "I haven't taken anything for granted. I had no idea I was going to achieve this much in college. It's just been me learning the sport a lot more. I love it more every year. When I was hurt my third year (2014), I just realized how much I missed it. I needed to get back out there. That was kind of the first time it really, really hit me. I was two two hours into my day wondering, 'What do I do now?' And I was like, 'Wow, I really need this.'
"I watch the NFL now. Growing up, I watched what my parents watched. My mom didn't watch any sport. I kind of blame her for me not knowing more about it when I was younger. Now I'm seeing the moves they're making and I'll go, 'Oh, I've done that one before.' I try to put myself in their shoes. But I've definitely put all that on the back burner. Yeah, I can do all this great stuff later. But why not be great right now? If we do well that can only help me out. How can you best present yourself?"
Well, keep creating disruptions in backfields. Somebody will be keeping tabs.