WVU Position Glance: Defensive Line
By Greg Hunter
Heading into the 2017 football season, West Virginia’s defensive line is about as predictable as a spring day in the Mountain State – sunny one moment, cloudy the next.
There’s no doubt that WVU’s third-year defensive line coach Bruce Tall has some big holes to fill, as he has to replace all three of his starters from last season – defensive ends Noble Nwachukwu and Christian Brown, as well as nose guard Darrien Howard. Between them, the trio started 78 games in their Mountaineer careers, while playing in a total of 138. All three are now in NFL camps, so the pros thought enough of their skill levels to give them a closer look.
Not only did Nwachukwu, Brown and Howard get all but one start last year (Nwachukwu was hurt against Texas, and redshirt freshman Adam Shuler got the first snaps in his place), but they also were ironmen on the field. Schuler and true freshman Reese Donahue developed into trust-worthy backups, and then-junior Jon Lewis also provided some rest for the starters at times. But other than Alec Shriner, who has since been moved over to offense, there wasn’t another defensive lineman who got any playing time for the Mountaineers in 2016. Typically it was a five-man rotation, as Donahue and Shuler rotated in at the defensive end spots, and Brown slid inside to the nose to give Howard a break every once in a while.
West Virginia’s combined game experience of defensive linemen available for 2017 (56) barely equals that Brown had himself at the end of his career (53). but the good news for WVU is that what it lacks in experience, it appears to make up in depth. A rotation that was just five or six deep last year could go eight or nine deep this coming season.
Certainly Shuler and Donahue will be counted on greatly to step up their level of play. Odds are the two sophomores will replace Nwachukwu and Brown as West Virginia’s starting defensive ends.
A 6-foot-4, 275-pound native of Longwood, Fla., Shuler registered 33 tackles and one sack as a redshirt freshman last year. Long and athletic, he showed the ability to pressure the passer but also was stout enough to play the run. The same could be said for Donahue, who became the rare true freshman d-lineman to see game action for WVU. The 6-foot-4, 264-pound native of Ona, W.Va., enrolled at West Virginia in January of 2016 and that jumpstart on his college career and allowed him to contribute right away. He got better and better as the 2016 season went along, and ultimately recorded 12 tackles.
Beyond Shuler and Donahue, things start getting a little dicey. Former walk-on Jon Lewis is a fifth-year senior who is versatile enough to play any of the three defensive line position. The 6-foot-3, 275-pound product of University High in Morgantown has played in 27 games in his career, but has just 12 tackles in that time. Jon, whose father Junius Lewis was a Mountaineer basketball player from 1976-79, must prove now that he can go from a six- to eight-play a game defensive lineman to one capable of handling 30 or more snaps a contest.
After Lewis, Shuler and Donahue, the experience drops off a cliff. Jaleel Fields, a 6-foot-1, 304-pound junior from Aliquippa, Pa., is the only other current West Virginia defensive lineman who has played a game at the major college level. Redshirted as a true freshman in 2014, Fields played in four games and had eight tackles in backup duty in 2015. He was in contention for a second-team spot at noseguard entering last season, but a knee injury in the summer sidelined him for all 13 games. He’s healthy again and battling for a spot on the depth chart at the nose, though he can also play some defensive end if necessary as well.
Fields’ biggest challenger for the starting noseguard job is another player who missed all of last season with an injury. Xavier Pegues came to WVU from Itawamba (Miss.) Community College a couple of years ago with a great deal of hype. But he just missed qualifying academically in 2015 and had to take a redshirt. Then last summer he suffered a shoulder injury and missed another entire season. Now a fifth-year senior who is entering his third year with the Mountaineers, he has yet to see a snap of game action at WVU. As long as he’s healthy, though, that figures to change this fall, as the 6-foot-2, 289-pound native of Oxford, Miss., came out of the spring as West Virginia’s starting nose guard. While he has the raw strength to hold down the down the middle, he’s also athletic enough to slide out to defensive end at times as well, so Pegues could give the Mountaineers a multi-positional player, much like Brown last year.
Fields and Pegues can play either inside or outside. One newcomer who figures to see action this year is a pure run-stuffing noseguard. Jalen Harvey is a 6-foot-2, 340-pounder who arrived at WVU this past January by way of Northwest Mississippi Community College. A second-team all-conference performer at NMCC last year, Harvey gives West Virginia some depth options in the middle it hasn’t had in a number of seasons.
The Mountaineers also have another junior college transfer who could add depth at the defensive end position. Like Harvey, Ezekiel Rose arrived at WVU this past January, giving him an opportunity to learn the system in spring practice. A high-motor product of juco power East Mississippi C.C., the 6-foot-3, 270-pound Harvey helped the Lions to a 19-2 record over the past two seasons.
That gives Tall seven defensive linemen he feels are capable of playing efficient football against Big 12 competition. But he hopes to find one or two more, giving him an eight- or nine-man rotation. Stone Wolfley could be one of those. The 6-foot-4, 246-pound third-year sophomore from Morgantown High spent his first two seasons at WVU working at tight end, but he moved over to defensive end this spring.
In addition, the Mountaineers have two young defensive linemen with excellent DNA who will get a look at helping immediately. Lamonte McDougle and Darius Stills are true freshmen who just enrolled at WVU on June 5. But both come with impressive pedigrees.
A 6-foot, 303-pound native of Pompano Beach, Fla., McDougle’s father Stockar was an All-American at Oklahoma and a first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2000, where he started an eight-year NFL career.
A native of Fairmont, W.Va., Stills is the son of former Mountaineer rush linebacker Gary Stills (1996-98). Gary had 26 sacks at WVU, which is still second on the school’s career list, and then went on to a 10-year NFL career with Kansas City, Baltimore and St. Louis.
Now the younger generation of McDougle and Stills will try to follow in their father’s footsteps. Whether that path leads them to game action or redshirts in 2017 remains to be seen.
Returning walk-ons Jonathan Szymczek, a 6-foot-1, 246-pound redshirt freshman from Erie, Pa., and D.J. Carozza, a 5-foot-10, 304-pound fifth-year senior from Parkersburg, will add depth to WVU’s defensive line.
West Virginia recently brought in another walk-on d-linemen who is intriguing. Daniel Buchanan recently enrolled at WVU. The 6-foot-4, 276-pound product of Gilbert, W.Va., passed up scholarship offers from the likes of Toledo and UCF to live his dream and play for the Mountaineers. An excellent tight end and defensive end in high school, he helped lead Mingo Central to the Class AA state championship this past year, defeating Darius Stills’ Fairmont Senior Polar Bears in the title game. Buchanan could potentially wind up on offense in college, but most expect his future lies in the defensive line.
Previously in the Series: