Competition Brings Out His Best, Says WVU’s Alston
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It’s very possible that West Virginia’s starting defensive unit will include just one member who wasn’t on the Mountaineer roster last season.
Taijh Alston spent the 2018 season at Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College before transferring to WVU in January.
Since then he’s added weight and strength and quickly thrust him into the mix at the defensive end position, possibly even as a starter.
“When I got here, I was 226 (pounds) and now I’m 250, so I’ve gotten a lot bigger,” said the 6-foot-4 sophomore. “Even though I’ve put on the weight, I haven’t gotten any slower. I’m just as athletic as I was when I was in juco.”
His length, size, strength and speed off the edge makes Alston seemingly a perfect defensive end in West Virginia’s 4-2-5 hybrid scheme that has been installed by first-year defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.
In the 3-3-5 odd stack defense run in the past by WVU’s previous D.C. Tony Gibson, the Mountaineer defensive ends tended to be bulkier, capable of holding up against the run and also chewing up blockers to allow the linebackers and safeties to roam free and blitz the quarterbacks.
Koenning’s system, though, asks more of its defensive linemen.
“It allows us to make more plays,” noted Alston of the new scheme. “Instead of just sitting in the gaps like last year, it lets us show our athleticism on the field.”
Alston actually was recruited by the previous staff, signing with the Mountaineers when Dana Holgorsen was still West Virginia’s head coach. But a couple weeks after inking a National Letter of Intent with West Virginia and amidst the process of moving to Morgantown for the start of spring semester in early January, Holgorsen revealed he was leaving WVU for Houston.
Even though the Mountaineers hadn’t hired a replacement for Holgorsen yet, Alston made the leap of faith and stuck to his commitment.
“I loved the passion of the fans and everything about West Virginia. I wish I had come here out of high school,” the Carthage, North Carolina, native said.
WVU recruited the three-star prospect while he was at Union Pines High School, but he decided instead to sign with East Carolina, which is 140 miles from his hometown.
“I came down to East Carolina and West Virginia, and I decided to stay close to home,” he explained.
An injury, though, just a week prior to the start of the regular season in his true freshman year with the Pirates in 2017 changed everything.
“When I was at East Carolina, I tore my right meniscus, so I had to sit out the whole year,” he recalled. “I was supposed to play as a true freshman, but I tore up my knee right before the regular season started. So, I didn’t really get to feel like a true freshman should.
“It was the first time I ever missed a football game, so it was hard to sit out,” the multidisciplinary studies major admitted. “I was 17 too, so I was still young and being hurt was tough to deal with. But now I’m in my right mind, stronger and faster. I feel ready.”
The injury at ECU changed Alston’s perspective, and he decided to leave Greenville, transferring to Copiah-Lincoln in January of 2018. Playing in a talent-rich junior college program that annually sends in the neighborhood of 20 alums on to four-year college football teams (including current WVU cornerback Keith Washington, as well as former Mountaineers’ Edward Muldrow and Stone Underwood), Alston shined for Co-Lin. He had 78 tackles and seven sacks in 2018, earning first-team all-Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges honors in his one season at the school.
Add in the fact that since Taijh was a full academic qualifier coming out of high school, had redshirted in his only season at East Carolina, was able to transfer out of Copiah-Lincoln in mid-year and still had three seasons of eligibility remaining, he was a recruit with plenty of marketable qualities. North Carolina State, North Texas, Appalachian State and Western Kentucky were some of those who extended scholarship offers this time around, but he decided to go to the place he wish he had gone to the first time.
“When (West Virginia) offered me again in juco, I knew it was the right fit for me,” he said. “I was so happy when they offered me and I got a second chance to come here.”
Long and lean, Alston wasn’t the prototypical defensive end for the 3-3-5 odd stack, but Gibson was looking for better pass rushers off the edge, so he recruited the junior college prospect who was 6-foot-4, but at the time barely 220 pounds.
By the time Alston got to WVU, though, Holgorsen, Gibson and the odd stack were gone. In their place came Brown, Koenning and the 4-2-5 hybrid, which actually seems to suit Alston’s skills and body type much better than the scheme for which he originally signed up.
“If you look at it, Taijh Alston is a true five technique, a defensive end, and they didn’t really play with that in the past,” noted Brown.
The third-year sophomore went through spring practice and preseason camp learning the new system.
“Even though I was recruited for another defense, I love this new one,” he said. “It allows me to show my athleticism.
“I feel like I’m going to show everyone. I’m in the best shape ever, and I’m ready to get to work. “It’s a big difference from juco to Division I, but Coach Mike’s (Joseph) strength and conditioning program helped me a lot.”
Alston seems poised to make a big impact in West Virginia’s new defensive scheme. He’s pushing for a starting job, though he has competition from Jeffery Pooler and Michigan grad transfer Rueben Jones for that first-team spot.
The one-time East Carolina Pirate knows it’s a fight to get on the field.
“It’s a competition every day in practice,” he explained. “It’s a race to the ball, and everyone is trying to get there. I think it brings the best out in me. You have guys beside you or in the same position as you, and they are all intent on getting to the ball. It brings the best out in all of us.”