West Virginia Football’s Biggest Questions In 2019: No. 9 – Defensive Front
(Editor’s Note – In our series of stories over the next few weeks, we’re going to take a look at each of West Virginia’s top 10 question marks heading into the 2019 football season. After that, we’ll also look at what we consider to be the top 10 strengths of Neal Brown’s first Mountaineer squad.)
9. Defensive Front – West Virginia’s defensive line enters the 2019 season as a great unknown.
The question isn’t so much raw talent, because this group may ultimately be as athletically skilled as most any on the team. It’s just there is so much that’s new to this unit that it’s still unclear if it’s going to be really good, really bad or somewhere in between.
One of the top questions is how this group will adapt to a new scheme. Under first-year head coach Neal Brown and his defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, WVU is switching from a 3-3-5 odd stack to a 4-2-5 hybrid look.
Under previous defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, the Mountaineers had been playing and recruiting to the 3-3-5 stack and its odd-man front for five years. Now for the first time since any of the current players arrived at West Virginia, WVU is going to be playing primarily an even front, normally with four defensive linemen – a defensive end, a defensive tackle, a nose tackle and a bandit, who is a rush-linebacker type.
For some of the returning defensive linemen, there isn’t a huge difference in the position they played last year and the one they will play this season. Reese Donahue and Dante Stills are still defensive tackles, while Darius Stills remains at nose guard. Their assignments within those positions will change some, but it’s not a monumental switch.
For others, though, especially those playing defensive end and bandit, it is much, much different.
On top of switching from a three-man front to a four-man version, the Mountaineers just don’t have a lot of veterans in their defensive front. Donahue is the only returnee who has ever started a game for WVU in the d-line before. Each of the Stills brothers saw a good bit of playing time last year, but neither started. That will almost certainly change this coming season, especially for Darius who will likely be West Virginia’s starting nose tackle. Dante is expected to rotate at defensive tackle with Donahue. In addition, Charlie Benton and Zach Sandwisch each started a game at linebacker last season, but in Koenning’s new scheme, both will be playing the bandit position, which requires a lot of pass-rushing ability. Other former linebackers Exree Loe and Adam Hensley also are making the switch to bandit.
The player who emerged from spring practice starting at the bandit position has not yet seen any game action at West Virginia. VanDarius Cowan played at Alabama as a true freshman in 2017, but then transferred to WVU last summer and sat out the subsequent season to fulfill the NCAA residency requirement. Cowan had been a middle linebacker in high school and in the early portion of his college days, but the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder from Palm Beach, Florida, was moved to bandit midway through this past spring and almost immediately jumped into a first-team role. Like so many in this year’s Mountaineer defensive front, Cowan appears to have talent but there’s just minimal game experience to verify that perception.
A similar thing could even be said for Darius and Dante Stills, who had nice showings in relatively short spurts last season. But now each is going to be asked to go from role player to major contributor. How they handle those new responsibilities will go a long way in determining how good this defensive line is as a whole.
West Virginia’s defensive end position also seems to have some talent and depth but precious little major college experience. Taijh Alston arrived at WVU in January after a season at Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound sophomore actually seems to be a pretty good fit for Koenning’s four-man front, even though he was recruited by the old staff. He’s a long, athletic pass rusher who spent most of the spring working as the Mountaineers’ first-team defensive end. Former defensive tackle Jeffery Pooler and one-time linebacker Quondarius Qualls are both making the conversion to defensive end, with youngsters Sam Cookman and Tavis Lee working at that position as well.
It’s hoped that Stone Wolfley and Brenon Thrift can provide depth at the defensive tackle and nose tackle spots respectively, but neither of the seniors has played a ton in the past.
Reuben Jones, who comes to WVU as a grad transfer from Michigan, as well as incoming freshmen Jordan Jefferson and Jalen Thornton, or some combination thereof, also will be looked at to provide depth in the defensive front.
This front four could potentially be very solid, or even better than that. There definitely seems to be some individual talent, but there are just so many new pieces trying to fit into an entirely new puzzle, it’s just very hard to project how it will all come together.
Previously In The Series