The names at the top of WVU’s defensive line depth chart are well known – Jeffery Pooler at defensive end, Dante Stills at defensive tackle and Darius Stills at nose tackle.
Between them they have played in 94 games for the Mountaineers, starting 30 of them.
The group behind that starting trio of defensive linemen isn’t filled with familiar names, though, as those backups have much less experience than those in front of them.
Still, there is potential.
“That’s a good room. They feed off each other,” noted WVU head coach Neal Brown. “Obviously Darius and Dante have had a lot of success, and Jeff is a veteran in that room as well. That’s a room that has good chemistry.”
To reach the point where defensive line coach Jordan Lesley wants his group to go, though, he needs his younger charges to develop … and develop quickly.
That development was hampered by an offseason that was limited because of COVID restrictions.
“Every guy, outside the guys who played last season, is literally in catch-up mode,” explained Lesley. “I guess the way to put it is that fall camp was their spring, but now they are in-season. It’s going to take some time.”
In its two deep, WVU lists true freshman Akheem Mesidor as the backup to Dante Stills at defensive tackle and redshirt freshman Jalen Thornton at d-end behind Pooler. True freshman Sean Martin, who was sidelined for a few weeks early in the season after being contact traced to coronavirus cases, also is expected to eventually help at defensive end, as is junior Taijh Alston, who is still rehabbing from a knee injury he suffered last year. It’s anticipated that he’ll be available for action by midseason.
Quay Mays, a junior college transfer in his first year at WVU, and sophomore Jordan Jefferson are both listed behind Darius Stills at nose tackle, though the 6-foot-1, 302-pound Mays has seen most of the backup snaps there so far this season.
“It’s not anything Jordan has done wrong; it’s just the nature of how things are playing out,” said Lesley of the playing time distribution at nose tackle. “Then just like any other position, right now at that No. 2 spot Quay gives us the best chance.”
The 6-foot-2, 295-pound Jefferson saw action in 11 of WVU’s 12 games last year as a true freshman and started one of them. His playing time may have gone down so far this year, but he still is a big part of West Virginia’s future plans up front.
“Let me say this, J.J. is still a young player,” said Lesley, who serves not only as the Mountaineers’ defensive line coach but also is their co-defensive coordinator. “He just turned 19, and in a normal year he would be redshirt freshman. He wasn’t ready to play last year, but he played out of necessity. He’s still a young player, and he’s going to be a really good player. This is where he is at in terms of his development, though.”
Martin is a 6-foot-4, 281-pound product of Bluefield, West Virginia, who came to WVU with great recruiting acclaim. He’s just getting back into the swing after being sidelined a few weeks.
“Sean missed time due to contact tracing, so he’s a ways away from getting back to where we want him to be,” explained Lesley. “He did have a decent camp, and if we had a normal summer, he’d be even further ahead. But that’s the nature of the time we’re in.
“That’s the same with all those young players.”
Indeed, two of WVU’s top three backup defensive linemen weren’t even with the program last season, and their development was hampered by the lack of preseason work opportunities.
Still, Lesley believes each has a bright future.
“Akheem Mesidor (6-2, 268 lbs., Fr.) has a chance down the road to be a really good player,” noted West Virginia’s defensive line coach. “Quay Mays is starting to come around. Once again, he would have had the spring and summer but did not. He would have gotten those 15 practices in the spring at a speed that is different than junior college. He would have gotten all of those as well as a spring game at game-typo instead of practice tempo. He would be further ahead, but he’s coming along. So is Jalen Thornton (6-2, 265 lbs., RFr.). He’s done some good things so far.
“Those are guys we have to depend on,” continued Lesley. “We can’t go through the season saying Darius and Dante are going to do everything, because they’re not. We have to have guys who will continue to develop, continue to improve and continue to step up.”
Mesidor in particular is a young lineman who seems to be progressing rapidly.
“Mesidor has played probably as much as any freshman in our program,” said Brown of the first-year player who is a native Ottawa, Canada. “He’s explosive and loves football. He doesn’t just like football, he loves it. He loves to compete, and he loves to practice. He’s hungry to learn.
“We’ve been playing him more on the edge lately, which is where he’s played in the past, and he’s playing well,” added Brown.
As a whole, Lesley believes his defensive line still has plenty of room for overall improvement.
“We’ve played hard, but we can play harder,” the 2007 Troy University grad said. “The one thing that is still lacking is execution in key situations, which is ultimately on me.
“You just have to coach them better to get what you’re trying to do across to them,” he added. “If you believe what you’re trying to do works – which I firmly believe – then you just keep working to get better.”
While Lesley is working hard to develop quality depth in his d-line, certainly the play of the top three on the depth chart is a huge key. Pooler is a consistent force, though the Stills brothers are the first two on the minds of many.
“Every time we come to the line, (the opposing offense) is going to know where 55 (Dante) and 56 (Darius) are,” he continued. “That’s part of being a good player. They have to learn to deal with it, and the guys around them have to take that pressure off of them, which isn’t happening right now.”