MOBILE, Ala. — A couple days ago, Tanoh Kpassagnon received a text message from one of his school’s most famous alumni, Brian Westbrook.
On Tuesday morning, as he readied himself for the week of Senior Bowl practices leading up to Saturday’s game, Kpassagnon kept Westbrook’s message at the forefront of his mind.
“Just embrace the moment,” Kpassagnon said, relaying Westbrook’s message. “Don’t take anything for granted, and I belong here.”
Kpassagnon, 22, has a chance to join an elite group in April. There haven’t been many Villanova football players taken in the NFL draft, especially recently, but the big defensive lineman has a good chance to join the list.
In addition to Westbrook, Kpassagnon has also received some advice to help him through the pre-draft process from Hall of Famer Howie Long, the most famous Wildcat to make it in the NFL.
“It would be really cool to represent my school like that,” Kpassagnon said.
The last Villanova football player to be drafted was OL Ben Ijalana in the second round of the 2011 draft. Ijalana is one of just three Wildcats drafted since the early '80s. Kpassagnon is listed as a third-round prospect by CBS Sports.
Despite the Wildcats’ recent success on the football field at the FCS level, Villanova is, of course, known for its basketball program. Kpassagnon wants to do his small part to help the football team gain some recognition.
Coming out of Ambler's Wissahickon High School, the interest in Kpassagnon was lukewarm at best. But once Villanova showed interest, some other CAA schools followed. Ultimately, Kpassagnon settled on going to Villanova, which made his mother happy because he would be staying close. And ultimately, he thinks going to a small school was best for him.
“Definitely,” he said. “I know some other programs, they kind of pass by guys if you’re not ready yet. And definitely coming in as a freshman, I wasn’t ready. Villanova really took the time to develop me. My coaches really believed in me, saw what I could do. I think going to Villanova was a blessing.”
A blessing can sometimes be a curse, though. While Kpassagnon tore up his level of competition, being named the CAA Defensive Player of the Year, he’ll have to shake off the small school and FCS stigma.
That starts this week, which Kpassagnon said is probably one of the most important weeks of his life.
What does he need to show NFL teams?
“I can hang with the big boys,” said Kpassagnon, who was stuck on the South team as an FCS player. “... Villanova has kind of a reputation for basketball, not football, even though our football program is awesome. I kind of have to show that I can hang with the SEC guys, bigger schools.”
This season, Kpassagnon played against Pitt tackle Adam Bisnowaty, who is also at the Senior Bowl. Kpassagnon is looking forward to facing him and some other top tackles this week.
Physically, hanging with the big guys won’t be a problem. Kpassagnon is one of the biggest. At Senior Bowl weigh-in on Tuesday morning, he came in just shy of 6-foot-7 and 280 pounds. He was listed at 290 all season but said the 280 wasn’t a surprise and that he played at that weight all season. NFL teams want him to bulk up some more, so maybe he’ll be able to do it before the combine in early March.
But for now, Kpassagnon's focus is on showing NFL teams that he belongs. That starts with a good week of practice at the Senior Bowl.
“One of my best friend’s dads told me this going into college,” Kpassagnon said. “You want the coach to say your name at least once or twice per practice, for something good. I sort of took that with me to college and I’m trying to bring that here. I’m going to try to make a play or two each practice.”
When asked if the coaches will pronounce his name correctly, Kpassagnon smiled and said he’s heard it every way imaginable.
This week, he has a chance to put his name and Villanova football’s on the map.