Jalen Thornton Will Be Key To WVU’s Defensive Line Depth
As West Virginia looks to improve its defensive line depth for the 2020 football season, one key ingredient will be a Mountaineer legacy.
Certainly Darius and Dante Stills fit into that category, following in the footsteps of their father, Gary Stills, who was a pass-rushing phenom at WVU (26 sacks from 1996-98). The Stills brothers are two of the preeminent returnees for the Mountaineers this season and will likely man the two starting interior defensive line positions.
But beyond that pair is another youngster with a gold-and-blue background who will be important to that d-line.
Redshirt freshman Jalen Thornton isn’t projected as a starter right now like Darius and Dante, but Thornton also is expected to be a key factor in West Virginia’s defensive front this season.
The Stills brothers each played in all 12 games last year, and senior-to-be Jeffery Pooler also returns after rotating at defensive end in 2019. The only other returnee who saw regular action in WVU’s defensive line in ’19 was Jordan Jefferson, who was a true freshman last year.
Most of the others who were used in West Virginia’s d-line last season have graduated, as starting defensive tackle Reese Donahue, starting defensive end Reuben Jones and backup noseguard Brenon Thrift have all departed.
Junior-to-be defensive end Taijh Alston, who was lost for the season five quarters into his 2019 campaign, is the only other defensive lineman returning to WVU’s roster, after Pooler, Jefferson and the Stills brothers, who has seen any D-I action in his career.
Thus the Mountaineers will look to Thornton and others of his inexperienced ilk to add the depth any decent defensive line must have. Defensive end Tavis Lee is headed into his third season at WVU, but he’s not yet seen any game action in his college career. Walk-ons Rhett Heston, Caydan Keeler, Russell Tanson and Josh Ritchie all are awaiting their first D-I game snaps as well.
If West Virginia is seeking for help behind Darius and Dante inside – and it certainly is – it is looking at Jefferson, who had five tackles and one sack in 11 game of action as a rookie last year, as West Virginia’s only experienced backup. Beyond Jefferson, Quay Mays (6-1, 302 lbs., Jr.), who transferred to WVU in January from Northwest Mississippi Community College, certainly is an option, as will be true freshman Akheem Mesidor (6-3, 255 lbs.) when he enrolls this summer.
But if the Mountaineers get to where they need to be in terms of interior defensive line depth, Thornton (6-2, 265 lbs., RFr.) is almost certainly going to have to be a key cog. It’s vital that he provide quality snaps behind the Stills brothers, even if Darius and Dante are fortunate enough to stay healthy all season. Asking a d-lineman, who are in the 280- to 300-pound range, to play 70 or 80 snaps in the up-tempo Big 12 just isn’t realistic. Thus backups are needed who can do more than just provide an occasional break; they have to be capable of playing 20 or 30 strong snaps themselves.
That’s where Thornton comes in and considering his own pedigree, and that of his father’s, there’s no reason to think Jalen can’t do exactly that.
Jalen’s father, John Thornton, was an outstanding defensive tackle at WVU from 1995-98. He had 162 tackles and 15 sacks in his four years with the Mountaineers. He then was a second-round draft choice of the Tennessee Titans in 1999, starting a 10-year NFL career split between Tennessee and the Cincinnati Bengals. In all he played in 143 games during his pro career, starting 123 of them, and recorded 303 tackles and 27.5 sacks during that time.
When John retired after the 2008 season, he got into player representation and ultimately became an agent. He’s worked for Jay-Z’s Roc Nation the past four years.
Now along comes Jalen, who seeming has not only his father’s physical tools but also the Thornton intangibles of intelligence and a strong work ethic.
Jalen attended Indian Hill High School in Cincinnati, where he developed into an all-Ohio Division IV first-team product who had offers from the likes of WVU, Cincinnati, Marshall, Iowa State and Kentucky.
A tight end and defensive end at Indian Hill, the pull of his parents’ alma mater was strong – his mother Allison is a native of New Martinsville, West Virginia, and also is a WVU alum – and Jalen committed the Mountaineers before he had even completed his junior year in high school.
The younger Thornton arrived at WVU in the summer of 2019 and used the subsequent year concentrating on getting bigger and stronger. He didn’t see any game action last fall and redshirted.
His father, who also redshirted as a true freshman before putting together a college career that would ultimately lead to his induction into the WVU Sports Hall of Fame, is very happy that Jalen got a chance to sit, learn and develop last season.
“That was very good for him,” the elder Thornton said of Jalen’s redshirt. “They had good defensive linemen, and he learned from them. I think he understands the hard work it takes to get on the field in college football. He’s excited. I think he’ll play well and progress. Hopefully he goes out and gets some good playing time this year behind the Stills brothers. Those guys are all tight.
“I felt they played well last year in some tough circumstances,” added John. “Jalen is getting great coaching, and I thought he really matured. That’s why I wanted him to redshirt. It showed him how tough it is to play college football. Not everybody can do it.”
Jalen and all the Mountaineers could have used a full spring to continue their development in the second year of the Neal Brown era. Unfortunately, though, world events have closed athletics everywhere for the time being, and the WVU campus, like most others, has ceased in-person classes.
After WVU shutdown, Jalen returned to his parents’ home in Cincinnati to continue his academics online and do what he can in terms of individual workouts.
“He definitely eats a lot more,” John chuckled when asked how the 6-foot-2, 265-pound Jalen is doing. “He got home (March 20), and immediately ran out and got pizza.
“I also think he’s matured. I’m so glad he got redshirted last year,” added John, who has two younger sons – Ty and Rory.