WVU Defensive Line Outlook: Filling Holes And Developing Depth
West Virginia returns some big pieces to its defensive line in 2020, but loses some important parts as well.
This spring will be about filling those holes and developing some badly needed depth.
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Returning – Taijh Alston (Jr.), Rhett Heston (RFr.), Jordan Jefferson (Soph.), Tavis Lee (Soph.), Jeffery Pooler (Sr.), Josh Ritchie (Soph.), Dante Stills (Jr.), Darius Stills (Sr.), Jalen Thornton (RFr.)
Departed – Sam Cookman (Jr.), Reese Donahue (Sr.), Reuben Jones (Sr.), Brenon Thrift (Sr.)
Recently enrolled newcomers – Quay Mays (Jr.)
Expected to enroll this summer – Sean Martin (Fr.), Akheem Mesidor (Fr.)
West Virginia returns seven scholarship players to its defensive line for the 2020 season and is adding three newcomers to that unit as well.
While the Mountaineers bring back some excellent d-linemen in ‘20, those who have moved on are significant. The losses of Reese Donahue and Reuben Jones certainly are big for WVU, as between them they accounted for 17 starts, 66 tackles and six sacks last season.
Their off-field presence was important as well.
A native of Milton, West Virginia, Donahue was a major contributor for WVU the past four years, and for most of that time, he has been a key leader to the team.
A graduate transfer from Michigan who just arrived at WVU last summer, Jones wasn’t a Mountaineer for nearly as long as Donahue, but the defensive end was a positive influence in the locker room in his relatively short time in Morgantown.
Without those two, others will now have to step into their leadership role.
Certainly in terms of his play on the field and his presence off it, Darius Stills (6-1, 292 lbs., Sr.) has been and will be a huge factor for the Mountaineers. The nose tackle from Fairmont, West Virginia, native started 11 of WVU’s 12 games in 2019 and led the team in both sacks (7) and tackles for loss (14.5). A first-team all-Big 12 performer in 2019, his total in each area was among the top 20 best single seasons in Mountaineer history. He also finished with 47 tackles, which was the seventh best mark on last year’s squad. In addition, only five WVU players have ever had more than the three single-game sacks that Darius recorded at Baylor last October, including his father, Gary Stills, who had four vs. Marshall in 1997. The all-time leader in that category is Steve Hathaway, who had five sacks in 1993 against Virginia Tech.
Darius considered jumping to the NFL after his junior season, but in the end, he decided to return to West Virginia for one more chance to play with the Mountaineers and one more chance to play with his brother.
Darius’ seven sacks tied for the team lead with his younger brother, Dante Stills (6-3, 295 lbs., Jr.). Rotating at defensive tackle with Donahue, Dante remained effective despite not playing quite as many snaps as Darius. A second-team all-Big 12 honoree last season, Dante not only had seven sacks, but also 25 tackles, 11.5 of which were for lost yardage. He was credited with a pass breakup and a forced fumble as well. Other than Darius and Dante, no Mountaineer had more than three sacks in 2019 and none had more than seven TFLs.
Darius assumed a leadership role last season, and now Dante will be asked to do the same. They are WVU’s most experienced returning defensive linemen, having played in 57 games between them in their careers while also amassing 101 tackles. They will be the key cogs to the interior of the Mountaineer defensive line in 2020, and their leadership skills will also be counted on greatly. Their ability and intensity will play a huge factor in West Virginia’s defensive fortunes next fall.
The Stills brothers may head WVU’s defensive line list this coming season, but they aren’t the only ones returning, just the most experienced.
Jeffery Pooler (6-2, 255 lbs., Sr.) was a nice contributor at defensive end for the West Virginia last season, playing alongside – and sometimes in tandem with when WVU went to a pure four-man front – Jones at that position. Pooler saw action in all 12 games, starting seven of them. A former defensive tackle who slimmed down to increase his speed when Neal Brown took over as the Mountaineer head coach prior to the ’19 season, Pooler recorded 26 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 5.5 TFLs last year.
With Jones gone, Pooler’s partner at defensive end will likely be Taijh Alston (6-4, 252 lbs., Jr.). The Carthage, North Carolina, native started his career at East Carolina, but after one season with the Pirates, in which he redshirted, Alston moved on to Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College. With 78 tackles and seven sacks at Co-Lin in 2018, he impressed WVU’s then-defensive coordinator Tony Gibson enough to earn a scholarship offer from the Mountaineers, which he quickly accepted in the fall of 2018. Despite the coaching change, Alston still enrolled at WVU in January of 2019 and immediately became a factor for Vic Koenning’s unit at defensive end in a three-man rotation with Pooler and Jones. Unfortunately for Alston, he severely injured his knee, tearing his patellar tendon, midway through West Virginia’s second game of the season. After six quarters of action at WVU with just one tackle, Alston’s year was finished. His rehab work may not allow him to participate 100 percent in spring practice, but the Mountaineers are confident that he should be full-go by next fall, again joining Pooler at defensive end.
Tavis Lee (6-2, 252 lbs., Soph.) and Rhett Heston (6-3, 220 lbs., RFr.) will each try to earn a spot in the d-end rotation as well. Both were outstanding in-state high school players – Lee from Martinsburg and Heston from Fairmont Senior – but neither has seen any collegiate action yet. Each will have a chance to prove himself this spring. It would greatly enhance West Virginia’s depth at defensive end if at least one of them is capable of providing quality play in a backup role.
In terms of the interior defensive line, the Mountaineers badly need a couple players to step up and provide depth behind the Stills brothers.
Jordan Jefferson (6-2, 295 lbs., Soph.) would seem ready to increase his role. Last season he was the rare true freshman defensive lineman who immediately was rewarded with playing time at the beginning of his college career. The young nose tackle was part of WVU’s rotation from game one in 2019 and even got a start in the third week of the season against N.C. State. The Navarre, Florida, product remained a regular at the nose guard position behind Darius Stills over the first two-thirds of the season, but he began to wear down in the later stages and his playing time diminished a bit the final few games. Still just 18 (he doesn’t turn 19 until next October), Jefferson finished the 2019 season with four tackles while playing in 11 games, but certainly more will be expected of him in 2020 with an entire year of strength and conditioning work to help.
Jalen Thornton (6-2, 260 lbs., RFr.) arrived at WVU last summer in the same class as Jefferson, but Thornton did not see any game action during the season and was redshirted. A product of Indian Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, Jalen is a Mountaineer legacy, just like Dante and Darius. Jalen’s father, John Thornton, was a star defensive tackle at West Virginia (1995-98) before going on to a 10-year NFL career (1999-2002 with the Tennessee Titans and 2003-08 with the Cincinnati Bengals). Jalen appears to have his father’s athletic ability, intelligence and instincts for the game, and he’ll need all those beginning next season when he’ll likely work at defensive tackle behind Dante Stills. While Thornton may not be ticketed to start this year, his ability to provide quality backup snaps will be vital as the Mountaineers search for depth at the d-tackle behind Dante.
Another interior defensive lineman who will likely be counted on to provide quality depth is Quay Mays (6-2, 280 lbs., Jr.).
Mays enrolled at WVU last month after spending a couple seasons at Northwest Mississippi Community College, and now he’s able to go through the offseason workouts and spring practice to prepare himself for the role ahead. He seems capable of playing either defensive tackle or nose tackle in Koenning’s alignment. A native of Bradenton, Florida, Mays played just one year of high school football, but proved himself an FBS prospect after getting to the juco ranks. He had 29 tackles, four for losses, last season for the Rangers.
High schoolers Sean Martin (6-5, 255 lbs., Fr.) and Akheem Mesidor (6-3, 255 lbs., Fr.) are both ticketed to arrive at WVU this summer. To get sufficient depth up front, the Mountaineers may need one or both of them to be game-ready this coming fall. While each could use a redshirt year to get bigger and stronger, they both come to West Virginia with great acclaim and could potentially see snaps as true freshmen.
How much those two youngsters are needed in 2020 will likely be determined on how the older d-linemen – like Jefferson, Thornton, Mays and Lee – step up and show they are capable of providing quality snaps behind Darius, Dante, Pooler and Alston.