MOBILE, Ala. – Mark Ferrante didn't visit Wissahickon High School in May 2011 intending to find one of the most intriguing defensive end prospects in this year's NFL draft. Ferrante, now the Villanova head coach and then an assistant, went to Wissahickon inquiring about another potential recruit. A coach alerted Ferrante about a raw junior tight end and defensive end, thinking maybe an introduction to a Villanova representative would compel the three-sport athlete to consider a future in football.
While walking down the hallway, Ferrante spotted a 6-foot-6, 235-pound teenager named Tanoh Kpassagnon.
"Is that the guy you're talking to me about?" Ferrante asked.
"Yeah, that's our tight end/D-end," the coach responded.
"Let me say hello to that guy!" Ferrante said.
Six years later, NFL personnel can relate. On Tuesday morning, the Senior Bowl participants paraded shirtless and in Spandex for an official weigh-in in front of coaches, executives and scouts taking notes. Kpassagnon, who grew up in Ambler, left an impression.
"First thing that jumps out is he's 6-7. He's 280 pounds, and he's cut out of rock," Eagles vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas said. "He's as body beautiful as it gets."
And it's not just size. The scouts that flocked to Villanova this year are also compelled by the talent that goes with the size. When Douglas went to see Kpasssagnon in person during the fall, Kpasssagnon sacked the quarterback twice in the first half. He finished the season with 11 sacks, showing the production that Douglas wants to see from small-school players.
"He's a guy with high-level talent," Douglas said.
That's been on display this week, too. Kpassagnon, who has drawn attention from the Eagles, is gaining buzz as one of the top FCS prospects this spring. The draft will be held April 27-29 in Philadelphia.
A player who was under-the-radar coming out of high school has the attention of NFL teams, and his physique and athleticism will stimulate more interest during the pre-draft process.
After Ferrante met Kpassagnon at Wissahickon that day six years ago, he invited Kpassagnon to a June football camp. But Kpassagnon couldn't go because he attended a Future Business Leaders of America conference in Orlando.
"He was on an academic trip instead of going around to these college camps for football," Ferrante said.
Kpassagnon finally went to the last camp Villanova offered that summer and measured just under 6-7 and 240 pounds. He showed flexibility and agility that defied his size. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.74 seconds. The coaches wanted him to run again. The second sprint confirmed the time. During the positional drills, football seemed natural to him. Then came one-on-one work between the offensive line and defensive line. Ferrante thought if Kpassagnon showed any physicality and aggressiveness, there would be a scholarship offer.
"We didn't have any offensive linemen at that camp who could block him," Ferrante said. "We ended up offering him a scholarship the next day or so."
It was first scholarship Kpassagnon received. But he didn't accept it immediately. His mother called two weeks later and wanted to know about Villanova's business school. He agreed to go to Villanova when the business school was an option, and he graduated last spring with degrees in accounting and finance.
The emphasis on education is no surprise. His mother, who is from Uganda, is a scientist at McNeil and initially didn't want her son playing football because as a kid school needed to be the priority. His parents met at Ohio State. His father is from Ivory Coast, where he has since returned and is an economist.
Kpassagnon first lived with his mother in Raleigh, N.C, before moving to the Philadelphia area when she accepted a new job when he was in middle school.
Football was never a consideration as a child. It wasn't on TV in his home. When he went to visit a friend in North Carolina, he attended the friend's football practice. The sport looked fun. Kpassagnon signed himself up back home in Montgomery County. Because of his size, he needed to play with older kids in the Whitpain recreational league. He played safety and tight end, just learning the game. He intercepted a pass and stopped. He didn't yet know he could advance the ball.
The NFL wasn't on his radar, but it didn't seem far-fetched to a football-crazed friend and high school teammate. David Kim told Kpassagnon when they were teenagers that football would be his future.
"I just looked at his size, first and foremost," Kim said by phone. "Even in high school, he was towering over everyone. He just didn't know the game of football yet. I knew he was going to go unnoticed during the college recruiting class. But I knew once the right coaches got in, and he really got focused onto football, he was going to become Thor."
Kpassagnon started his Villanova career as a tight end and didn't play defensive end until 2013. By 2015, he was first-team all-CAA. In 2016, he was a first-team all-American, CAA defensive player of the year and had 45 tackles and 21 1/2 tackles for a loss to go with the 11 sacks.
"I feel like I've gotten better the more I've played football over the years," Kpassagnon said. "Once I reach the NFL, I'll be able to learn so much more and can learn from guys who have been doing this their whole life and know different techniques. Once I'm in, I expect to do really good things."
That's been the message to scouts, too. Ferrante tells those who went to Villanova how much growth is still ahead of Kpassagnon. He can still learn more about the mental part of football. Ferrante said as that develops, "the sky is the limit because he has all the physical attributes."
It was evident this week when a defensive end in the Villanova helmet participated in the same defensive line drills with prospects from Clemson and Alabama.
"I feel like I belong," Kpassagnon said. "That's something a lot of people have been helping me out with this process - that you belong there. You're supposed to be there."