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Opportunity with Mountaineers is one linebacker Lee Kpogba hopes to make the most of

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Lee Kpogba lost his first opportunity as a Division I football player.

After gaining a second at West Virginia, the redshirt junior linebacker is vowing to make the most of it.

“Football has done a lot for me in life and I’m just appreciative getting to play the game I love,” Kpogba said. “It got taken away from me for a little bit. Getting another chance to play, I want to make the most of the opportunity. It’s fun to me every time I hit the field.”

Kpogba originally offered a verbal commitment to the Mountaineers in October 2017 as part of their 2019 class.

After WVU changed coaching staffs following the 2018 season, Kpogba reopened his recruitment and ultimately settled on Syracuse.

Kpogba played 22 games over two seasons with the Orange, but was suspended from the team in February 2021.

He never returned to the SU program, and in an effort to get back to playing at the highest level of college football, Kpogba moved on and spent last season at East Mississippi Community College.

“My sophomore year, I got suspended from the team at Syracuse, therefore I ended up at East Mississippi Community College,” Kpogba said. “I didn’t participate in spring ball last year, so football was taken away from me for a couple months.

“Went to Mississippi and got to play again. I wasn’t sure I was going to get another D-I opportunity, and I got one, so I’m just grateful. I’d like to make the most of it.”

While playing at one of the more prominent junior college football programs in America, it didn’t take Kpogba long to realize the differences from where he had been to where he was.

“Being in JUCO, we don’t have a lot of that perks that Division I athletes get,” Kpogba said. “Being a D-I athlete and then going JUCO was a very humbling experience for me. You’re not getting stipends anymore and you’re kind of supporting yourself.

“I appreciate the game a lot regardless, but it did make me appreciate the game more when I had to go JUCO, because it’s a grind. You’re not getting any perks. JUCO shows how bad you really want it if you ask me.”

Early impressions indicate Kpogba is a frontrunner to be the Mountaineers’ middle linebacker, having displayed a work ethic that’s earned praise from coaches and teammates over his first few months in Morgantown.

He is also proven at this level. As a sophomore with the Orange in 2020, Kpogba was in on 43 tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack, giving him an edge when it comes to experience.

Spring has presented an opportunity for him to better understand responsibilities in defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley’s scheme, with Kpogba growing more comfortable as time progresses.

“It’s intense. I like how the d-line plays,” Kpogba said. “Those guys make it easy for me, because there are ballers up there. We just fly around. I like the energy the guys have been playing with these last couple practices. Once we get everything together, it’s going to be pretty good.”

Kpogba, at 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds, is able to apply his physical style to better cement the second level of West Virginia’s defense, which he continues to learn more about daily.

“I’m always ready to shoot a gap and get a TFL,” Kpogba said. “I kind of have to back out of that a little bit now and start taking more key steps and things like that to be in position, because you’re not always going to get a TFL. You definitely have to shoot the right gap.”

Just in his short time as a Mountaineer, Kpogba’s role has potentially changed with the departure of Josh Chandler-Semedo, the Mountaineers’ leading tackler in 2021. Chandler-Semedo originally announced he would return to WVU and finish out his college eligibility, but then instead opted to transfer.

While he was prepared to play in any event, Kpogba says it sped up the learning curve.

“I was already prepared to come in and compete, so I was going to fight for the ‘1’ spot regardless of who was here,” he said. “Nothing was going to change about my demeanor or how I approached practice. With him leaving, I felt like I had to step up a lot faster. Even though we are in spring practice, the mike is usually seen as the leader of the defense and you have to give a lot of calls. I was already in there, but I hopped in my playbook more to learn things faster.”

Now 10 days from the end of spring practice, Kpogba will look to make the most of what’s left before the Winston Salem, N.C., native eventually participates in his first season as a Mountaineer.

Kpogba nearly never got this opportunity, though he also nearly did to start his college football journey.

“It was definitely surprising because you never know what life has in store,” he said. “I definitely wasn’t expecting it, but when coach Lesley called me and told me the opportunity I would have if I came here, I just couldn’t turn it down.”

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