Lesley’s Plan For Defensive Line Includes Playing Time For Freshmen
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s depth situation along the defensive line has required fixes from several different directions as Mountaineer coaching staffs both past and present have worked to find enough players to fill the physical, demanding roles along the front ranks. In fact, those struggles go all the way back to Tony Gibson’s implementation of the 3-3-5 defense, which required only three, not four, men in the trenches on most plays. With big, athletic bodies who can both stand up to the run and mount pass rush pressure in short supply, the move to the odd-stack was partly motivated by the desire to ease pressure on recruiting, as only three spots, rather than four, needed to be filled.
While the theory may have been sound, WVU was still unable to get enough players through the high school ranks to fill out the depth chart, and often wore down late in games or later in the season. The Mountaineers turned to the junior college ranks, and later to the transfer route in general, to help one of the most problematic areas in the program. Last year, for example, the Mountaineers hit the jackpot not once, but twice, with graduate transfers Kenny Bigelow and Jabril Robinson, both of whom were stalwarts in the rotation.
Even that, though, hasn’t been enough to completely fill the ranks. West Virginia has also been fortunate enough to land Darius and Dante Stills in previous recruiting classes, both of whom were talented enough to play as true freshmen. And now, with coaches getting more comfortable with the one-year-old rule that allows a player to participate in four games and still keep his redshirt season, participation for first year players is going to be on the rise.
WVU defensive line coach Jordan Lesley already has his plans mapped out in that regard.
“It’s a total disservice to any freshman if you don’t play them,” said Lesley, who is in his 14th year of coaching. “Why would you not? There’s nothing more valuable than experience. You keep your fifth year, play them in four games on the schedule. It would be a crime not to play them.”
That removes any mystery of whether or not Jordan Jefferson and Jalen Thornton, the two incoming true freshmen in this class, will be on the field. The question now becomes, how much will they be able to contribute?
“The freshmen are further along than I thought they would be,” said Lesley, who counts seven years of junior college coaching experience along with three years at Troy with head coach Neal Brown on his resume. “J.J. (Jefferson), his power is unbelievable. Jalen came out of high school extremely well coached, and maybe his dad (former Mountaineer and NFL defensive lineman John Thornton) was a part of that. He has a lot of savvy. They are willing to learn, and they are accepting it. I told them the first day, ‘You guys don’t have the luxury to be freshmen, so grow up now. The fire is coming.'”
Also joining in the mix is Reuben Jones, a graduate transfer from Michigan. The hope is that he can duplicate the success enjoyed by Bigelow and Robinson in their single seasons a year ago, and he has shown promise in that regard according to the coaching staff. The junior college route was also tapped, with Taijh Alston, who enrolled at WVU in January, currently holding a first-team position at defensive end. If Jefferson and Thornton can hold their own for a handful of snaps – Lesley doesn’t have a goal in mind but throws out 10 as an “average” – the Mountaineers might finally be able to get to a situation where they have three players at each defensive line position that they are not afraid to put in the game.
Without question, though, the learning process is just getting started for Jefferson and Thornton. Their ability to implement Lesley’s improvement plan will determine whether they follow the path laid down by Dante Stills, who bypassed the four-game mark and played in all 12 games a year ago, or take the four games and redshirt option.
“The easiest thing to learn is the nose, so both of them are there right now,” Lesley explained of their initial slotting. “It is a little easier to learn there, especially fundamentally.”
That falls in line with Lesley’s approach to teaching line play.
“Take what you are good at, and we’ll perfect that, and then move on to the next thing,” he said of a philosophy of not overloading newcomers who already have a great deal of learning to do. “That position allows you to do that. In the future, Jalen gives you some flexibility with his athleticism and size (to move outside), but J.J. is going to be a nose for his career. I am extremely happy with them right now.”