A Kuony flip: How Kuony Deng bet on himself and beat the odds

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f you’ve ever taken the time to read through Cal football’s roster, you will quickly realize that a hefty portion of its student-athletes were born and raised in California. Kuony (pronounced “coin”) Deng, however, has spent the majority of his 21 years on Earth adapting and adjusting to new environments. Deng has wound his way between colleges, homes and states before finally arriving at UC Berkeley as a junior transfer.

With legitimate NFL aspirations on the horizon, he likely won’t be here any longer than two years. But that hasn’t stopped the inside linebacker from settling into his new surroundings.

“I love Berkeley. It’s a beautiful place — no place like it,” Deng said. “I love the weather, I love the people and being able to go to school here is the ultimate honor. It’s a blessing.”

Although Deng has found a home in Berkeley, and certainly on Cal’s defense where he mans the middle alongside All-Pac-12 inside linebacker Evan Weaver, his journey to this point has been anything but smooth.

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t takes but one conversation to notice that Deng is more than just a tackling machine. It’s part of head coach Justin Wilcox’s emphasis on creating a program that breeds players to be successful after college, whether their future includes football or not. Cal has focused on working with its players, and building character beyond what is taught at practices or in the film room.

“He’s very self-assured in who he is, he’s got a lot of confidence,” said Peter Sirmon, Cal’s inside linebackers coach. “He has more wisdom than most people his age would typically produce.”

As the second-youngest of six children, Deng traces the bulk of his personal wisdom back to his family’s unconventional origins. His oldest brother, who currently resides in nearby Palo Alto, was born in Sudan, while his sister and another brother were born in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, respectively. His parents eventually managed to escape the turmoil, bringing the Deng family to the United States as refugees in the early 1990s. 

Though Deng himself did not experience the same hardships his parents did in East Africa, he credits his mother for instilling important values in him and fostering his unique perspective on life.

“We have people who are struggling. We have family who are struggling. We’re from a place that isn’t at peace — that always gave me more purpose growing up,” Deng said. “I knew that I had to have my stuff more together than some of my friends did.” 

His parents’ sacrifices taught him that nothing in life is guaranteed, and helped forge a maturity that would flourish as he grew older.

Although he remains quite busy with football and school, Deng hopes to make his first visit to his family’s native South Sudan within the next few years, where his father currently lives.

“My sister was the first one to go back two years ago. She got to see our roots, our people,” Deng said. “The people we always talk on the phone to, she actually got to go and meet them.”

There is plenty of family across the Atlantic Ocean he has yet to meet, but growing up, Deng had more than enough siblings to keep him occupied. As a child, his family moved around frequently, so they were some of the few constants that remained. 

“It was great. I feel like we raised each other. We all kind of leaned on each other — we are all still really close now,” said Deng, who initially discovered his zeal for football as a kindergartner watching his older brother play for the high school team.

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ero. That’s how many stars Deng had on his football recruiting profile coming out of high school.

As nearly all multisport athletes do at some point, Deng eventually found himself in a dilemma. Football was undoubtedly his true love, but he struggled to find a position that suited his lanky frame. He decided, instead, to devote more time to basketball — earning all-state honors during his senior season in which he averaged 19.2 points per game and led his school to the Virginia state semifinals.

Despite this success on the court, he refused to put down the helmet. He received multiple basketball offers, but just a single scholarship to play football.

Deng chose the latter and never looked back.

He packed his bags and headed down the road to the Virginia Military Institute, where he would be able to play both basketball and football. The schedule of a dual-sport athlete at a quality academic institution is grueling in its own right — but Deng also had the requirement of being a military cadet. That responsibility helped instill a discipline that echoes many of the same ideals preached by Coach Wilcox, such as selflessness and brotherhood.

“It was just a lot of accountability. A lot of time management,” Deng explained. “Working for something bigger than yourself — if someone screwed up, everyone would get punished.”

In the summer before his second year at VMI, Deng began to recognize his potential on the field, despite seeing limited action as a freshman. In his second game of the season, however, he fell victim to a season-ending injury.

With his sophomore year now lost, Deng decided to take a risk on transferring. He had aspirations to play football at a big-name school, and saw junior college as a way to showcase his talent.

Deng took a leap of faith, and, once again, packed his bags — arriving in southeast Kansas to play football at Independence Community College. He found himself in the middle of nowhere with almost no money. He had walked away from an NCAA Division I scholarship and, for the first time ever, was more than a car ride away from his family. But as all great underdogs do, Deng bet on himself.

“I’m going to make it — that’s the only option. I’m not going to go out sad,” Deng told himself.

During his time in junior college, his team was also the focus of the Netflix original show “Last Chance U,” which documented players and coaches at Independence throughout the season.

“I did not like being around the cameras. It was not productive… it wasn’t quite the right platform I wanted,” Deng said. “I was just trying to get the right scholarship, play a good season with my guys, then get out of there.”

Although he did become more comfortable with the production crew as the season went on, Deng saw how many people around him were failing to make it out of community college. He knew that beating the odds meant no distractions.

“When I brought myself to the point where I was confident in my decision, I knew that there was no going back,” Deng said. “I poured myself 100 percent into everything at Independence. I told myself that I refused to slip through the cracks and be a failure.”

Slip, he did not. Deng instead used his singular season to skyrocket up the rankings, transforming from a virtual unknown into the No. 1 junior college outside linebacker recruit in the nation. As Power 5 offers began flooding in, a coaching staff spearheading a defensive awakening caught Deng’s eye.

“I saw an ascending program with a great culture, one of the best defenses in the country, a team that could play with anybody in the Pac-12, and just a program that was built on strong character, accountability and earning everything you get,” Deng said. “You mix that with the number one public university — that’s pretty attractive.”

So, once again, Deng packed his bags.

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n the last day of August and in the crisp afternoon air, Deng finally stepped onto the big stage, donning his blue and gold jersey while taking the field with his brothers. But this time, it wasn’t spring practice, it wasn’t fall camp — it was game day, and Deng had the opportunity to start on a Pac-12 football team that, much like himself, was entering the season as an underdog.

At 6 feet, 6 inches tall with a slender build, it does not take more than a glance to locate Deng on the field. What makes him so special, however, is the speed and physicality that he pairs with his length as an inside linebacker — a position he rarely played before coming to Cal.

“I really like the progress he’s made. Doesn’t surprise me. He’s a really hungry football player,” said Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. “We’d love to get a bunch of guys that look like him — the tall, rangy guys.”

Led by a group of defensive studs with years of experience and countless accolades, Cal toppled UC Davis in its season opener. The team’s leader in both tackles and pass breakups? Someone most fans in the stadium had probably never heard of — Kuony Deng. But you wouldn’t know that talking to him.

“I’m not a numbers guy,” Deng said. “I just hope I can be remembered as a guy who was a great teammate. Somebody who showed up and worked hard every day. Somebody who never took anything for granted and hopefully made their teammates better.”

Deng’s answer was no surprise, as he has always been about playing selflessly. After all, he was inspired to wear the number eight to match former teammate Al Cobb, the quarterback and Deng’s senior mentor during his freshman season at VMI.

“The locker room has really embraced him — he’s genuine, he’s a hard worker. He really represents all the things Coach Wilcox represents here,” said Sirmon, who Deng firmly considers to be the best linebackers coach in college football.

Even at Cal, he spends nearly all of his free time with his teammates. Recently, Deng and a few other Bears have been a rallying force for the strategic card game spades, spreading it around the locker room after it was introduced by fellow newcomer Ben Hawk Schrider.

“We play spades every opportunity that we get. During camp, that’s just how we would unwind,” Deng said. “We’ve been teaching like half the team, they’ve just been watching us play — we’ve made it a big thing around here.

Part of what makes Cal’s defense so dominant is their concern for each other’s well-being both on and off the field, a culture which Kuony fits into perfectly.

“That’s the brotherhood right there. We spend every single day together, from when we wake up to when we go to bed,” Deng said. “When we get to step on the field and play football, we’re going to try to leave everything out there.”

Sure, he is only two games into his Cal career, but Deng won’t shy away from telling you that he aspires to eventually take the field for an NFL team.

“That’s definitely a big goal of mine,” Deng said. “It’s something I’m trying to work towards every day.”

The road won’t be easy, but Deng will bet on himself again — and if history has proven anything, you should believe him.

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].