Maryland's Kabongo Not Your Average D-lineman

August 23, 2009|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,jeff.barker@baltsun.com

COLLEGE PARK -- The college recruiters had arrived at Fairfield (Conn.) Prep to recruit Garrett Brown, a solid defensive line prospect.

But what about the other kid? The scouts couldn't help but notice Masengo Kabongo, a 6-foot-1, 280-pound defensive lineman who speaks four languages, reads "Beowulf" and possesses quickness that belies his bulk.

Two years younger than Brown, Kabongo - a redshirt freshman expected to be a key addition to Maryland's defensive line this season - had left the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo with his mother, a physician, when he was 12, settling in Connecticut.

Enrolling at Fairfield, Kabongo expected to do what most other kids from his Central African nation did. "Everybody had played soccer, and that's just what I knew to play. I was pretty good. Good footwork," said Kabongo, 19.

But there aren't too many 280-pound soccer midfielders. "That became a problem. I was always the big kid in the bunch," said the amiable, soft-speaking Kabongo, often called "Maska," a blend of the first few letters of his first and last names. "They asked me to try out for football."

Kabongo's loss - he still loves soccer - was Fairfield Prep's gain. By his senior year, he was rated a four-star recruit by Rivals.com and was ranked the No. 2 player in Connecticut by Scout.com.

His former teammate, Brown, ended up at Minnesota, where he has started 16 straight games and has been named a captain entering this season. But recruiters couldn't forget about Kabongo, who was courted not only by big football schools - Florida, Illinois and Maryland were his finalists - but also by the Ivy League. Harvard and others were enticed by his 3.5 grade-point average in high school. He speaks English and French as well as Swahili and Lingala, which are spoken in parts of his native country.

"He is what you're looking for in a student-athlete," said Kevin Lempa, a Maryland assistant defensive coach who encountered Kabongo several years ago while an assistant with Boston College. Lempa continued to pursue Kabongo after arriving at Maryland in 2007.

"We had recruited Garrett Brown at BC," Lempa said. "But the [Fairfield] coach said that Kabongo would potentially be a better player down the road."

Kabongo might have been raw - he was still relatively new to football - but Lempa was struck by the player's agility.

"Because he was a soccer player, he was able to run," Lempa said. "He's got change-of-direction skills for a guy that's 275, 280 [pounds]. He can rush the quarterback. I would say right now that's probably his strong point."

Kabongo enhanced his coordination by playing basketball in high school. He was a power forward, naturally.

The thought of Kabongo in the low post amuses Don Brown, Maryland's defensive coordinator. Brown said he felt sorry for opponents who dared venture into the lane. "He'd bounce you right out of there," Brown said.

Maryland coaches believe Kabongo could have a standout season on a unit that lost Jeremy Navarre and Mack Frost and returns only one starter, senior Travis Ivey. The line was further thinned when nose tackle Dion Armstrong decided recently to transfer.

Maryland is looking at two possible positions for Kabongo, who excelled on scout teams last season in practice. He could play inside as a nose tackle or outside as an anchor.

"First off, he's a guy we trust," Brown said. "Secondly, he's one of the those unique guys that has the ability to move in and out depending on the health of your football team. He's strong enough to deal with the run."

Lately, Kabongo has been playing inside because of a foot injury suffered by Joe Vellano, a tackle.

Kabongo knows his relatively smallish height could be perceived as a liability. "A lot of people would say being 6 feet 1 is a disadvantage. But I don't think so because it gives me leverage. I can definitely get off the ball a lot quicker than the O-linemen, which makes it a lot easier to beat them to the quarterback."

Lempa can't wait to see Kabongo unleashed when Maryland opens the season at California on Sept. 5.

"They [opponents] don't know who he is. So in the first game it will be interesting to see how they handle him," Lempa said.

Like many Terps, Kabongo aspires to play in the NFL.

But it's not his ultimate goal. An international business major, Kabongo said he hopes for a career in international development or relief - or perhaps with a multinational company.

"I wouldn't see myself playing for more than five to seven years in the NFL at most, and then I'd get back on track," Kabongo said.

Note:: Maryland's planned scrimmage was postponed because of bad weather Saturday. It was rescheduled for 1:35 p.m. Sunday at Byrd Stadium. It is closed to the public.

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