In 2017, West Virginia finished 103rd in the nation in rushing defense, allowing over 200 yards per game. While the offense was electric, the defensive line was a sore spot on the team, as even Kansas, for goodness sakes, ran all over them. Linebackers Al-Rasheed Benton and David Long were flying all over the place making tackles, because, often times, the first level was getting pushed back three yards off the ball into the second level. To some extent, one could argue there was also a correlation between the team’s lack of a pass rush (25 sacks on the season) and the secondary’s struggles. If the Mountaineers want to have any chance at contending for a Big 12 Conference title and get to the College Football Playoff in 2018, getting a better push up front has to be near or at the top of the team’s priority list.
The defense arguably may have added by subtracting, after Adam Shuler and Lamont McDougle transferred from the team this offseason. Dana Holgorsen and the defensive staff continued to carry the torch on the transfer trail in recruiting, as they brought in an underutilized defensive end from lineman factory Clemson and a former five-star high school prospect defensive tackle, who battled through excruciating injuries, from USC. At the least, these two guys will add depth to a position group that is looking for stability and leadership. Will Grier and the offense will give the defense plenty of support on the scoreboard, so if the defensive line can make timely plays this year in critical situations, then the sky is limit for the team as a whole.
Starters: DE Ezekiel Rose, Sr., 6’2″ 276; NT Darius Stills, So., 6’1″ 296 or Dante Stills, Fr., 6’4″ 289 or Kenny Bigelow Jr., RS Sr., 6’4″ 307; DE Reese Donahue, Jr., 6’4″ 276 or Jabril Robinson, RS Sr., 6’2″ 273
After rotating in for most of the regular season, as he adjusted to the Division I, Power Five level, Ezekiel Rose started the final three games of the 2017 season. He made the most out of his opportunities. He broke out against Kansas State. He recorded an interception, forced a fumble and a sack against the Wildcats, and the following week, he was named a defensive champion against Iowa State. Rose finished as the team’s leader in sacks (4.5) a year ago, and he very well could double that total or better in 2018 with a full load of snaps. Rose has the athletic capabilities to be a solid pass rusher if he continues on the ascending path he was on to end 2017.
The starter at nose tackle will be determined in training camp, as three contenders enter the ring to duke it out. Behind Xavier Pegues and Lamont McDougle on the depth chart in 2017, then-true freshman Darius Stills logged 79 snaps at the position and only came away with one tackle. The coaching staff had enough confidence in Darius Stills to name him the starter on the spring depth chart, but he may be looking over his shoulder at a familiar face — his younger brother, highly-touted, 4-star Under Armour All-American Dante Stills. He’s the highest rated defensive line prospect the Mountaineers have had since Bruce Irvin. I’m sure Mountaineer fans who had the opportunity to witness him rack up 31.5 tackles for loss last year at nearby Fairmont Senior High School can’t wait to see what he can do in the Old Gold and Blue. There’s no doubt Dante Stills factors into the defense’s long-term plans, but could that be as soon as day one? We’ll have to wait and see. A high school teammate of Mountaineer wide receiver David Sills, Kenny Bigelow comes to Morgantown, after an injury riddled five years at USC, where he suffered two season-ending knee injuries. If Bigelow is able to perform in camp like the five-star prospect he was prophesied to be, he may impress the coaches enough to start him against Tennessee and see what he has in the tank.
Another battle to be determined in camp is at the other defensive end position between the incumbent Reese Donahue and the newcomer Jabril Robinson. Robinson joined the program earlier this spring as a graduate transfer from a Clemson team that he couldn’t break into the loaded starting lineup. Potentially, the change of scenery may give Robinson the spark he needs to motivate and push Donahue, who started all 13 games for the Mountaineers, but only recorded 1.5 sacks all season. Averaging just three tackles (0.5 for loss) per game last year, Donahue has the size and physicality of Rose, but didn’t show the same burst getting off the line in pass rush as Rose. Outside of a bull rush, his repertoire of moves and his hand fighting skills are still developing. Fans may see the starting duties split to begin the year.
Reserves: Jeffrey Pooler, RS So., 6’2″ 272; Stone Wolfley, RS Jr., 6’4″ 260; James Gmiter, Fr., 6’3″ 319; Brenon Thrift, Sr., 6’2″ 295
Once the dust settles after camp, these guys will settle into rotational roles as second or even third stringers to begin the year. Barring any dramatic injuries, they may garner more playing time as play in the Big 12 takes its toll on the starters, but that will all depend upon improvement and play-making ability.