Lee Kpogba will be the centerpiece of WVU’s defense this fall, and he has had quite the road to get to that point.
His story in football is somewhat commonplace in this era of college athletics — start with a Division I program, move on, to another program and land at another home. Kpogba’s story before football, however, is much more unique.
Kpogba’s family is from Liberia, and while his mother, Irene, was pregnant with Lee in 2000, they moved to Ghana to escape the ongoing Liberian Civil War. Lee was born in a refugee camp, and two years later, he moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Having never been to Liberia and possessing few memories of Ghana, Kpogba calls Winston-Salem home. He does, however, still have family in Liberia, including his mother, while his father, Samuel, still resides in Winston-Salem.
Kpogba was a two-way standout at Parkland High, running the ball on offense and tackling ball carriers on defense. West Virginia was, in fact, his first Power Five offer, and he committed to Dana Holgorsen’s program in 2018. When Neal Brown took over at the start of 2019, however, he de-committed and opted to join Syracuse.
Three years later, Kpogba finds himself back in Morgantown, and with a prime role with the Mountaineers.
“It was definitely surprising because you never know what life has in store,” Kpogba said during spring practice. “I definitely wasn’t expecting it, but when Coach [Jordan] Lesley called me and the opportunity he told me I would have if I came here, I just couldn’t turn it down.”
Before suiting up at Pitt on Sept. 1, Kpogba will already have experienced three years of college football — two at Syracuse in the ACC and one at junior college East Mississippi CC. So when he showed up for spring football, he already had a leg up on his fellow junior college additions.
So why West Virginia, and why now? Kpogba always had the prospect of becoming a Mountaineer in the back of his mind as he was a big fan of former WVU safety Karl Joseph.
“He was one of my favorite players, so when I had come up here, it was my first [Power Five] offer I had received, so I was kind of overwhelmed, and I wanted to come here,” Kpogba said. “I made the decision to commit early on without exploring my other options.”
Joseph’s influence on Kpogba is part of the reason he will don the number eight shirt in 2022.
In his second round of recruiting, Kpogba was also attracted to the Mountaineers’ culture. After he visited Morgantown, he was impressed with the diversity of the roster. This year, for example, the Mountaineers hail everywhere from Florida to California, and Australia to the Netherlands.
“Recruiting-wise, guys are from different places. I feel like Syracuse recruited different places than here, so you’ve got guys from everywhere,” Kpogba said. “All kinds of backgrounds and things like that, so I feel like that plays a part also.”
Now, what sets Kpogba apart from his fellow linebackers? All through the spring, coaches and teammates have raved about his enthusiasm for the game. Lesley, WVU’s defensive coordinator, even claimed he caught Kpogba “talking trash to a tire” during the spring. (Kpogba later clarified he was likely trash-talking his opponent in a tire-flipping race.)
That enthusiasm helps with his leadership role as the so-called “quarterback of the defense,” and luckily for him, it comes naturally for him.
“I’m very vocal,” Kpogba said.
Three weeks remain until WVU’s season opener against Pitt. Kpogba played with the Orange against the Panthers in 2020, making him the only Mountaineer with experience playing Pitt.
Sept. 1 will be a different beast than a regular ACC conference matchup, though.
“I think everybody understands how important this game is to West Virginia fans and to us as a football team,” Kpogba said. “So we’re going to be ready.”