Dante Stills Must Build On Impressive Freshman Season For WVU Success
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Coming off a season in which he earned freshman All-America honors from multiple outlets, Dante Stills knows that more is expected from him in 2019. Increased output and productivity is a must from the second year player, who is being counted on to help fill the massive gaps left in by the departure of Kenny Bigelow, Jabril Robinson and Ezekiel Rose from last season’s Mountaineer defensive front. That trio accounted for 70 tackles (11.5 for loss) in 2018.
With such seasoned veterans alongside, Stills was able to be brought along at a measured pace in his first year of collegiate play, although it proved impossible to redshirt him or keep him off the field. He finished with 16 tackles, but among those were a number of difference-making plays, including three sacks, six stops for loss and a pair of forced fumbles. The three sacks were the third most on the team, and first among defensive linemen.
Even with that impressive start to his career, Stills feels like a different player as his second season of collegiate play approaches.
“My whole mentality has changed. Last year I was new to the schemes, new to the coaching, just new to college period. This year I’m more comfortable,” he explained. “I feel like I’ve adjusted very well. My role is different. Last year I looked up to Reese (Donahue), to my brother (Darius), to Bigelow. With the year I had, I had to take another step now and be a role model to the younger guys.”
With plenty of notoriety coming off a high school career at Fairmont Senior in which he made three all-state teams and earned All American honors, Stills is accustomed to the glare of the spotlight. That he performed well in his first collegiate season speaks to his ability to handle that pressure, which is a good sign as he looks to take on a bigger role this year. He learned quickly that relying on his superior size and speed in high school wasn’t going to extend to college, and thus has taken other aspects of the game seriously, from conditioning to learning schemes and techniques, where the smallest errors can make the difference between success and failure.
“Now they’re all big and strong, just like you,” the Fairmont, West Virginia native said. “I came in as a freshman at like 275 (pounds). At the end of the season I was 285, and now I’m 303. I definitely got a lot stronger. I work out with older kids like Colton McKivitz and Josh (Sills) and Reese and Darius, so they help push me every day. (In high school) I didn’t do my own thing, but I would just run around. Now in college it’s a whole different thing. everything is detailed in what you have to do. I feel like I am developing as a player.”
That development has continued this fall, where Dante, his brother Darius and Reese are working with a mix of newcomers and backups from last year to form the kind of rotation that can stand up to the high snap counts and quick pace of play prevalent in the Big 12. Last season’s transfers, Bigelow and Robinson, were vital in that regard, joining with Donahue, Rose and the Stills brothers to give WVU a six-man rotation at the three down lineman spots. This season, the three holdovers from last year are looking for help from Taijh Alston, Brenon Thrift and Jeffery Pooler, as well as transfer Reuben Jones and perhaps freshman Jordan Jefferson, to give the Mountaineers even more depth, and the ability to rotate in the manner that defensive line coach Jordan Lesley hopes to see. At the core of that, however, is the need for the veterans, of which Dante must now be considered, to play well and lead the way.
On the surface, that task might seem to be a bit more difficult, as the entire defensive unit is learning the new Vic Koenning defense. The transition is probably easiest for the defensive line, however, which is uniformly enthusiastic about the shift to a more attacking style and movement both pre- and post-snap.
“It’s different to an extent,” Stills said, explaining his initial alignment and positioning is now more varied. “I was a four or a five (technique) last year, now I’m a three tech out to a four or a five sometimes. I do feel comfortable as a one, three, five, really anywhere on the field.”
What that means is that rather than aligning in a more narrow slotting over the tackle or in the gap outside the tackle as he did a year ago, Stills now is playing a position that has a base alignment in the guard-tackle gap, but can shift up and down the line according to the call. That goes for the entire defensive front as well, meaning that fans will see a line that is much less static in its initial positioning, not to mention its assignments once the ball is snapped. Twists and stunts are common, as Koenning hopes to develop more pressure from the defensive front, which accounted for just 9.5 sacks in 2018. Granted, some of that was due to the defensive system employed, but in this scheme, getting pressure from the front line is vital.
Getting accustomed to Koenning’s system does require adjustments to the mindset, as Stills noted, but it’s clear from the reactions of every linemen that they like this new system. That’s a positive step, as enjoyment of your job is a positive first step. It only remains to be seen if enough of them assimilate it well enough to give West Virginia the push and performance it needs from its defensive front to be successful.