Everyone else has left. Seriously. Everyone. Tommy Armstrong had been hanging around, waiting for his likely starting right guard to finish his work. But it’s fast approaching 10 o’clock on a Sunday night, and Chongo Kondolo continues repeating his steps, practicing his hand placement, pretending the padded wall he keeps firing into is Maliek Collins.
So Armstrong makes the slow walk to the locker room, too. Practice ended 45 minutes ago, but Kondolo is still here, the only Husker left in the Hawks Championship Center practice facility. Why are you still here?
“Just some steps,” Kondolo says. “Stuff I could see that I didn’t do well at today, just come over here and correct that. And we have a day off (Monday). As far as steps, he beat me inside, so I was trying to work on my steps inside. And also pass pro. …”
The guy who beat Kondolo inside is Collins, the junior defensive tackle and Nebraska’s best player. Collins has beaten a lot of offensive linemen to the inside, and will continue to do so for many years. There is no shame in getting a practice lesson or two from him.
But here’s the thing: Collins this past week said Kondolo has taught him plenty as well. There's nobody on the O-line Collins likes going against more.
If Collins gets his arms too wide on a play, Kondolo will come right at his chest and win the fight. Collins admires it. It’s high praise for the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder who arrived here as a junior college transfer in 2013, redshirted, then played all 13 games last year but didn’t start one. He has his sights set on changing that in 2015. All indications are that will change.
“It’s everything to me,” Kondolo says of his final season as a Husker. It’s just his third year in the program but he has plenty of ownership in it. “I’m planning on just doing my best to help this team out, because what’s really important to me and why I came to Nebraska, is to win a Big Ten championship. It’s my last chance to win a Big Ten championship, as well as get payback on some teams that beat us my first couple years here.”
The daily work against Collins sure helps. The way Kondolo sees it, he's not going to go against anyone better than the guy he sees in practice.
“Like today, he beat me a few times with a spin move or slanting inside really fast. Just things like that, if I can pick that up from him, it’s going to build my confidence for the season especially.”
Originally from Carrollton, Texas, Kondolo made a stop at Fresno City College in California before signing with Nebraska in 2013 in a class that include O-linemen David Knevel, Zach Hannon, Dwayne Johnson and fellow junior college transfer Matt Finnin. And, oh, yeah, Collins was in that class too.
Kondolo arrived in July of that year and admits it took some time to adjust. He didn’t feel physically or mentally ready. But he got better that next spring. And by the fall of 2014, he was gaining faith in his abilities with each game rep, including an impressive performance at Northwestern, where several reserve linemen seemed to outperform the starters.
“It showed me that I can play at this level and help this team win,” he says.
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Kondolo started taking the next step this spring, making a strong first impression on the new coaching staff, coming out of spring seemingly the favorite to win the job at right guard, though fellow senior Givens Price is among those trying to make a move there.
Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh makes it clear: “I like Chongo a lot.” The coach likes his strength and technique. “Frickin’ great hands. He latches on to you and it’s pretty much over.”
Kondolo likes his new coach, too, though he says he’s had to adjust to Cavanaugh’s style.
“I’m not used to somebody saying something to me after every play after I mess up. Because I’m already hard on myself,” Kondolo says. “So I’m definitely not used to someone saying something hard every single time. But he definitely coaches us hard, and still loves us real hard.”
What Kondolo has also noticed is that this year’s O-line might be closer than in years past. There’s a lot of different personalities, but he thinks everyone has done a good job of putting egos aside.
He gives credit to senior left tackle Alex Lewis, one of the team captains, for his leadership.
“He’s doing a good job trying to keep us in line and helping us see the bigger picture, that we need to build off last year and correct some things from last year and be more consistent,” Kondolo says.
And maybe it’s a small thing, maybe it isn’t, but Kondolo notices more linemen sitting together at the lunch table these days. And when there are jokes, everybody seems to be part of the jokes.
“Instead of the (guys on the) travel squad joking around, and everybody else not really fitting in, I feel like everybody’s in on that,” Kondolo says. “Even the freshmen are starting to get in on that.”
With that thought, it’s time to call it a night.
The season is less than four weeks away. But Chongo can’t lock in on all that just yet. He'll meet Maliek again Tuesday.