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Deng Focused and Motivated to Accomplish Big Things

July 29, 2021
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Cal senior outstide linebacker Kuony Deng had anything but a conventional path to where he is now -a highly-touted sixth year senior poised to launch a near-certain next phase of his life in the NFL after his final season with the Bears in 2021.

Though Deng was born in the states, his siblings and parents hailed from East Africa, giving the 6-6/260 OLB a strong sense of his roots and how it makes him different and in many ways, a beacon of hope and inspiration to his people in Sudan. The family escaped the war torn region not long before Deng was born, providing him opportunities he never would’ve had in their homeland.

“My mom named me after one of my great grandfathers, who was leader of our tribe so I kind of grew up with that purpose, understanding I need to become something bigger and be a leader. And at some point, somehow, some way, maybe come back and work towards the development of our nation. At this point in my life, playing football and being active in my community seems to be the best way to move in that direction.

“I think for me, I continue understanding on my journey that whatever limits I might have thought I had or that were put on me don’t exist. As I continue to grow as a young man and athlete, I understand there are no real limits holding me back.

“Being South Sudanese and a football player, kind of representing my people, I’m understanding you can create your own lane. If you’re true to yourself, you’ll find what works for you. You don’t have to dim your light. You can be exactly who you are and that will be enough.”

Deng starred as a prep basketball player in high school, earning first team all-state while averaging 19 points per game but he only came into his own in his senior season on the gridiron, earning conference MVP playing defensive end, outside linebacker and wide receiver for John Champe High School in Aldie, Virginia. 

“For me, coming out of high school, I wasn’t as successful in football till my senior year so I went to the only school where I had an offer, which was VMI,” noted Deng. “I also excelled at track and basketball in high school and some programs didn’t really know where I’d fit in. 

“With my time at VMI, I started to see what I could achieve and that gave me the confidence to go a different direction.”

As a true frosh at VMI playing at 205 lbs, Deng had 16 tackles at outside linebacker in 2016 before opting to go a different direction and play at Independence Community College in Kansas.

While playing at Independence, his time there coincided with his team being featured on Netflix’s popular Last Chance U. Though many players use similar opportunities to boost their profiles, Deng gave a wide birth to the crew, who were always looking for angles to explore in the inner workings and drama of the program.

“It was really bizarre, kind of like a Pac-12 Media Day type atmosphere,” said Deng. “They were around you all the time. I saw it as more of a distraction rather than a platform I wanted to use. 

“I walked away from a full ride at a strong university. I needed to make sure I stayed focused on my future and not get caught up in all that. They were trying to feature me but I feel like I made the right choice to stay focused on my future.

The next step for the then JC All-American OLB was a transfer to Cal. The Bears beat out some tough competition for Deng, who had offers from LSU, Auburn, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Oregon, UCLA and more in 2019 when he arrived at Cal.

The talented LB got out of the gate quickly, compiling a stellar 119 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, eight pass breakups, eight passes defended, five quarterback hurries and one fumble recovery while playing in and starting a career-high 13 games as a junior.

Deng added another 31 tackles, two forced fumbles, 2.5 tackles for loss and one quarterback hurry in the team’s four games in 2020.

“Cal checked all the boxes for me in terms of a great education and a great legacy of putting players in the NFL,” said Deng. “Doing things at a higher level at a place where they truly understood how to build themselves up. The types of guys who played at Cal are the types of people I wanted to surround myself with. I knew playing for these coaches and playing on this defense, I’d be really productive.”

The move to outside linebacker this season puts Deng in position to maximize his strengths with his length and ability to pressure the passer and disrupts passing lanes.

“There were a couple games in junior college where I played some inside but it was really my first time doing it full time,” noted Deng.

“It helped me to be able to play inside a lot, too. Just learning the big picture of the defense and really understanding everything, from the d-line, all the linebacker spots and the defensive backfield. I believe every player should have a strong understanding of the big picture to get the most out of themselves. I don't know if there's an NFL team that can prepare you to play all four linbacker positions like at Cal or all three in a 3-4. I think that provides me the benefit of being a good fit with anyone.”

Has his time at Cal validated his decision to be a Bear?

“Honestly, it's kind of right around what I expected to do," said Deng of his production so far. “I knew I wanted to be really productive. You just go back, watch the tape and feel like you can do even more. I was hoping for a full season in 2020 and now I'm excited for a full season in 2021.”

His first season playing inside gave Deng the benefit of playing alongside one of Cal's most prolific tacklers in program history. What did he learn playing alongside the first team All-American?

“Just the fanatical effort,” said Deng. “You've got to play the game with intensity and emotion. Some people can do it for two quarters, maybe for thee quarters but not again and again and again. That’s really what Weav embodied.”

What's he looking foward to moving back outside?

“Just making those big, gamebreaking plays," said Deng with a smile. “With me and Cam playing on the edges, it's going to be something that's dangerous for a lot of teams, making it tough for the other quarterbacks and allowing the DBs to go out and make plays. Just making the plays on first and second down and cutting loose on third down, getting in the backfield and making big plays. Cam and I  just continue to push each other to be the best we can be. I think he's encouraged knowing he’s playing opposite me and I feel the same with him.”

With a full spring as well as player workouts over the summer, Deng is more than impressed what he’s seeing from the Cal offense, especially the big boost the receiving corps has received with recent additions and a second year in OC Bill Musgrave's new offense.

“Oh, I think we’re gonna be really good on offense this year," said Deng. "The talent, it's hard to even compare the level of skill position players since I got here to now. We've got some guys who can be real playmakers. And having more continuity with Coach Musgrave in his second year here and Chase leading the group, it's been cool to see how efficient and organized they've been running the offense. It's most impressive.”

The most recent additions are 2021 frosh receivers J Michael Sturdivant‍ and Mavin Anderson‍ as well at the return of redshirt frosh Jeremiah Hunter‍, who missed last season with an upper body injury.

“Both those guys have looked really good and we've got Jeremiah (Hunter) back, who was out last year," noted Deng. “Kekoa Crawford being fully-healthy, Niko with his consistent playmaking. Tommy Christakos -he’s an athlete. You watch him kick the ball through the uprights or going up and dunking on guys after catching a touchdown. He just does impressive things. (Justin) Baker -the work ethic, the explosive playmaking, change of direction ability. He just reminds me of Niko in so many ways. The way he carries himself, both super-motivated, always doing the right things. He's a kid who I think is gonna be a Cal fan favorite. 

“Having receiving corps two to three players deep, that's an exciting thing.”

The Bears will be checking in for fall camp in just a week on August 5. For players and fans alike, it can't come soon enough.

Other stories:

Deng and Garbers Talk NIL, 2021 Season at Pac-12 Media Day

Wilcox Kicks off 2021 Pac-12 Media Day For Cal

Discussion from...

Deng Focused and Motivated to Accomplish Big Things

1,597 Views | 3 Replies | Last: 1 mo ago by Fyght4Cal
calumnus
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Nice interview. Really happy they are moving Deng back outside. His length and high center of gravity was often a disadvantage inside, but is great for making up distance or coviering tall TEs or even WRs.

In that way I see him as potentially more a hybrid OLB/Safety at the next level, where the move to spread offenses with big receivers has made a tall LB that can also cover a very interesting prospect. Thus it is good to hear him talk about our offense too, it sounds like he is getting practice dropping into coverage.

GivemTheAxe
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calumnus said:

Nice interview. Really happy they are moving Deng back outside. His length and high center of gravity was often a disadvantage inside, but is great for making up distance or coviering tall TEs or even WRs.

In that way I see him as potentially more a hybrid OLB/Safety at the next level, where the move to spread offenses with big receivers has made a tall LB that can also cover a very interesting prospect. Thus it is good to hear him talk about our offense too, it sounds like he is getting practice dropping into coverage.



All I can say after reading the article about Deng and Deng's comments is, "WOW!"
Fyght4Cal
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I don't know how many of you have had the chance to talk to Deng. But if you need reassurance that your Cal Athletic donations are doing good in the world, find a way to have a conversation with Kuony. His intelligence and drive dazzle. The coolest thing is, he is very emblematic of every Cal player I've met over the past 4 or 5 years. Just outstanding young men as a group.
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