The depth chart for West Virginia’s defensive line this coming season will be juggled some from how it looked in 2019.
Gone are defensive tackle Reese Donahue and defensive end Reuben Jones, who started nine and eight games respectively last year. WVU does return four other lettermen in its d-line, though – Darius Stills, Dante Stills, Jeffery Pooler and Jordan Jefferson – so the cupboard is far from bare in the Mountaineers’ base three-man front. Still, assistant coach Jordan Lesley’s unit needs another four or five d-linemen to step forward if this group is going to have sufficient depth.
Here is how we view the d-line rotation.
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Anticipated starters – NT Darius Stills (Sr.), DT Dante Stills (Jr.), DE Jeffery Pooler (Sr.)
The Stills brothers are certainly ticketed for starting roles, as Darius will again be with the first team at nose tackle, and Dante, who split time at defensive tackle last year with Donahue, now will become the mainstay at that position. Darius had 47 tackles last season, including a team-best 14.5 for lost yards and seven sacks. Dante was the only other Mountaineer with more than seven tackles for lost yardage (he had 11.5) or three sacks (he had seven). In all he had 24 tackles.
The biggest question in terms of a starting spot is at defensive end. Pooler shared that role last year with the since-graduated Jones, so it would seem logical that Pooler, who had 26 tackles and 2.5 sacks last season, will get the first shot that starting role.
Likely top backups – NT Jordan Jefferson (Soph.), DT Jalen Thornton (RFr.), DE Taijh Alston (Jr.)
Alston figures to compete with Pooler for the No. 1 defensive end job. An injury five quarters into his 2019 season pushed Alston to the sideline last year or he very well may have seen some starts himself in that campaign. No matter who starts this season, though, Pooler and Alston will both likely see plenty of action. The anticipation is they’ll split the defensive end snaps, just as Pooler and Jones did last year. They could even be on the field together at times if WVU employs a four-man front, as it did in a few games last year.
Jefferson saw immediate game action as a true freshman last fall, working as Darius Stills’ primary backup at nose tackle. Jefferson had five tackles in all, playing in 11 games and even starting one. The hope is that Jefferson can provide more snaps this year, taking additional burden off Darius.
While West Virginia has experienced depth at defensive end and nose tackle, it is inexperienced at defensive tackle behind Dante. That’s where Jalen Thornton will likely factor in. The son of WVU Sports Hall of Famer John Thornton, Jalen didn’t see any game action last year as a true freshman. Now as a redshirt freshman, he’ll have an opportunity to see significant snaps as Dante backup. If Jalen isn’t up to that role yet, the Mountaineers will have to turn to a newcomer, which obviously isn’t ideal.
Other key returnees – DE Tavis Lee (Soph.)
In his third season at WVU, the time has come for Lee to move up into the rotation. The former Martinsburg star did not see any snaps during his first two years with the Mountaineers, but now he has a chance to find some playing time as either a defensive end or defensive tackle. If Lee doesn’t take advantage of his opportunity this year, the likelihood is he’ll soon get passed by the youngsters coming up behind him.
Newcomers who could see game action this season – NT/DT Quay Mays (Jr.), DE Sean Martin (Fr.), DT Akheem Mesidor (Fr.), DE Bryce Brand (Jr., transfer from Maryland)
After Alston’s injury in game two last season, West Virginia’s three-man defensive front basically used a six-man rotation the rest of the way with Jones and Pooler at defensive end, Donahue and Dante Stills at defensive tackle and Darius Stills and Jefferson at nose tackle. The Mountaineers were fortunate that none of those six suffered any significant injuries, because their depth behind them was pretty shaky. They were also fortunate that most of those individuals could absorb a significant snap count and still play at a high level, particularly Darius, who rarely came off the field in some games.
If West Virginia’s three projected starters and three top backups all hold course, that’s six, which is the bare minimum the coaches would like to have. Ideally the Mountaineers would find a total of seven or eight or even nine defensive linemen who can provide quality snaps.
Junior college transfer Quay Mays enrolled at WVU in January, and seems capable of providing an immediate impact as a swing player at both defensive tackle and nose tackle. Bryce Brand, who recently announced that he’s transferring from Maryland to West Virginia, also could be a factor this coming season, though it’s still not clear if he’ll be a graduate of UM and thus be immediately eligible without an NCAA waiver. At 5-foot-11 and 248 pounds, he would seem best suited for defensive end, which is where he spent his three years with the Terps.
If Mays and Brand can provide quality depth to WVU’s d-line, the Mountaineers likely won’t need to force feed their two true freshmen – defensive end Sean Martin and defensive tackle Akheem Mesidor – significant minutes. Now it could be that one or both is just too good to keep off the field – that’s a possibility considering each is highly regarded – but like most true freshmen linemen, it’s never a bad option to give them a year to get bigger and stronger while easing them into playing roles.