Football Questions For 2018: Defensive Line
Question 8 – Defensive Line – On a team that returns many starters but still has plenty of questions, the WVU d-line of 2018 may be the poster child.
The Mountaineers return all three of their starting defensive linemen from this past season – Reese Donahue and Adam Shuler at the defensive end positions and Lamonte McDougle at the nose guard – plus their top backup in Ezekiel Rose. But West Virginia must greatly enhance its depth if it wants to take the necessary steps forward.
The good and bad thing about this starting unit this past season was it was very young, with Donahue and Shuler being sophomores and McDougle being a true freshman Obviously that youth brought growing pains, but it also means the trio will be together for several seasons. Certainly they must get better as a unit, but with age should come greater size, strength and experience, so hopefully improvement is right around the corner.
Donahue is a 6-foot-4, 263-pound high-motor d-end from Ona, W.Va. who finished with 40 tackles and 1.5 sacks this past season, as he started all 13 games. With continued dedication to the weightroom, hopefully he can add further strength and another 10 or 15 pounds. The same is true for Shuler, who was limited a bit late in the season by injury, but still played in 12 of 13 games and started 10 of them. His 37 tackles were 10th on the team and his three sacks were third. But like Donahue, the 6-foot-4, 268-pound Shuler could use some additional size and strength as well.
It may be difficult for McDougle to add much more size to his 5-foot-10 (maybe) frame. At 295 pounds, he may not be able to handle much more weight. But further strength certainly is possible, and the game experience he gained this year, when he earned a first-team role in week five and started every game after that, will be a huge plus going forward. The first true freshman offensive or defensive lineman to become a full-time starter at WVU in over 30 years, McDougle was a fireplug in the middle who recorded 27 tackles and two sacks.
Now with age must come consistency, and that’s true for all three returning d-line starters in West Virginia’s 3-3-5 odd-stack. You would expect improvement, though, since all three have considerable experience under their belt now.
The real question for WVU’s defensive line is the backup situation. The Mountaineers rarely have had the depth in their defensive front that top flight schools enjoy, and if they are to get to that upper echelon, they must get to the point where they can rotate seven or eight quality players along their d-line.
Really this past year, that rotation was limited to four, as Rose provided West Virginia with a strong effort, typically in a backup role though he did start three times when Shuler was injury. At 6-foot-3, 263 pound, Rose was similar to Donahue and Shuler in that he was a bit undersized, but the East Mississippi C.C. transfer amassed 23 tackles and a team-leading 4.5 sacks because of an effort level that would not quit.
Rose returns for his senior season, but WVU desperately needs several more like him, capable of either starting or playing heavy minutes as a quality backup. West Virginia dropped to last in the Big 12 in rushing defense in 2017, giving up 204.2 yards per game on the ground. That was 30 more than Tony Gibson’s defenses had averaged in his three previous seasons as the Mountaineer defensive coordinator. Part of that decline can be attributed to the fact WVU didn’t have enough quality depth in its d-line. And even with the three starters plus Rose returning to that unit, West Virginia needs to develop at least three more to get to the point where it needs to be.
Two d-linemen who served backup roles last year, Jon Lewis and Xavier Pegues, have departed as the unit’s only scholarship seniors. Of the returners, Darius Stills seems the most likely ascend into one of the quality backups. The 6-foot-4, 278-pounder from Fairmont, W.Va., was ticketed for a redshirt last year as a true freshman. But Gibson and d-line coach Bruce Tall decided after depth issues early in the season that Stills was needed in 2017, so he saw action in week five and played in every game after that. He was only credited with one tackle all year, but his role as a pass rusher in third-down packages increased as the season went along. He’s capable of spelling McDougle at the nose or moving outside and subbing for Donahue at a defensive end. With an offseason in the weightroom and 15 spring practice sessions, Stills, the eldest of former Mountaineer linebacker Gary Stills’ sons, could be a major impact d-linemen next year.
If Darius is ready, WVU’s d-line depth now stands at five, but that still two or three short of the optimum. Jalen Harvey, a 6-foot-3, 310-pound junior college transfer, arrived at West Virginia in January of 2017 with a good bit of hype, but really didn’t have much of an impact this past season. He played in only five games and had just five tackles during that time. The Birmingham, Ala., native has decided to transfer and will spend his senior season at another college.
Jeffrey Pooler and Stone Wolfley, who will be a sophomore and junior respectively, also will try to work their way into the defensive line rotation. Pooler played in five games this past year and had one tackle. Wolfley, who started his career at tight end but was moved over to defensive line last spring, saw special teams action in all 13 games in ‘17 but was not used much in the defense.
If Pooler and Wolfley prove themselves capable of quality play, WVU’s d-line depth issues are close to solved. But if the Mountaineers need others to step in, they do have some options.
One of the most interesting is already on campus. Brenon Thrift has taken a circuitous route to West Virginia since graduating in 2014 from Monroeville’s Gateway High School, which is outside of Pittsburgh. Rated the No. 2 middle linebacker prospect in Pennsylvania coming out of high school, he redshirted as a true freshman at Temple in the fall of ’14. He moved on to Lackawanna (Pa.) College the next year, where he was a teammate of Kyzir White in 2015. After one year at Lackawanna, he entered Penn State but did not see any game action for the Nittany Lions, so he transferred to WVU in the summer of 2017. Having sat out of games this past fall because of the transfer, he’s now a senior looking to finally see some Division I action. Gibson has praised Thrift, who now checks in at 6-foot-3 and 292 pounds, and he very well could be part of the rotation next fall.
In addition, there are a couple freshmen walk-ons currently with the Mountaineers, including Connor Barwis (6-foot, 270 pounds) and Sam Cookman (6-foot-2, 225 pounds). Both need more size and strength but are intriguing. Daniel Buchanan (6-foot-5, 285 pounds) is another freshman walk-on, having passed up several offers to come to WVU. A highly productive player at Mingo Central (W.Va.) High School, Buchanan originally was working at defensive line when he arrived at WVU, but now seems more likely to be used at offensive tackle.
If the Mountaineers can’t find what they need for their defensive front among this group of returnees, they already have three high school defensive linemen signed, any of whom could see action next season. The nice thing about this trio – Darius Stills (6-foot-4, 284 pounds), Tyrese Allen (6-foot-3, 292 pounds) and James Gmiter (6-foot-3, 309 pounds) – is that each is already physically mature beyond the average high school senior, so getting them big enough and strong enough for D-I trench warfare won’t be as big a challenge for them is it is for most others. West Virginia still is on the recruiting trail, as well, and would like to add another defensive lineman to this class, if it finds one worthy.